People v. Gutierrez (People v. Moffett), 324 P. 3d 245 (Cal. 2014) – Two juvenile offenders (both age 17 at time of crimes) were convicted of special circumstances murder and sentenced to LWOP, in a discretionary regime. At the time, Penal Code § 190.5, gave two sentencing options for 16 and 17 year-old juveniles convicted of special circumstances murder: (1) LWOP or (2) 25-years-to-life. Courts had interpreted the statute to provide a presumption in favor of imposing LWOP as the appropriate penalty. The California Supreme Court reversed and remanded both cases for resentencing in light of Miller.
The court held that “properly construed, [Penal Code § 190.5(b)] confers discretion on a trial court to sentence a 16– or 17–year–old juvenile convicted of special circumstance murder to [LWOP] or to 25 years to life, with no presumption in favor of [LWOP].” The court also held “that Miller requires a trial court, in exercising its sentencing discretion, to consider the distinctive attributes of youth and how those attributes diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders before imposing [LWOP] on a juvenile offender. Because the sentencing regime created by section 190.5(b) authorizes and indeed requires consideration of the distinctive attributes of youth highlighted in Miller, we find no constitutional infirmity with section 190.5(b) once it is understood not to impose a presumption in favor of [LWOP].” (citation and quotations omitted).
The court reasoned that: “in light of Miller’s reasoning, a sentence of [LWOP] under section 190.5(b) would raise serious constitutional concerns if it were imposed pursuant to a statutory presumption in favor of such punishment. At the core of Miller’s rationale is the proposition—articulated in Roper, amplified in Graham, and further elaborated in Miller itself—that constitutionally significant differences between children and adults diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders . . . [and] because of children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, . . . appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon. That is especially so because of the great difficulty . . . of distinguishing at this early age between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” (citation and quotations omitted). Thus, “[r]eading section 190.5(b) to establish a presumption in favor of LWOP . . . is in serious tension with the foregoing statements in Miller . . . Treating [LWOP] as the default sentence takes the premise in Miller that such sentences should be rarities and turns that premise on its head, instead placing the burden on a youthful defendant to affirmatively demonstrate that he or she deserves an opportunity for parole.” (citation and quotations omitted). “Of course, a sentencing court has discretion under Miller to decide on an individualized basis whether a 16– or 17–year–old offender is a rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption. But to say that all 16 or 17 year olds subject to section 190.5(b) presumptively deserve a sentence of [LWOP] is in serious tension with Miller’s categorical reasoning about the differences between juveniles and adults.” (emphasis in original; citations and quotations omitted).
In its conclusion, the court stated: “Juveniles who commit crimes that reflect impetuosity, irresponsibility, inability to assess risks and consequences, vulnerability to peer pressure, substance abuse, or pathologies traceable to an unstable childhood cannot and should not escape punishment. And when the crime is a vicious murder, it is beyond question that a juvenile offender deserves severe punishment. Because Moffett and Gutierrez have been convicted of special circumstance murder, each will receive a life sentence. The question is whether each can be deemed, at the time of sentencing, to be irreparably corrupt, beyond redemption, and thus unfit ever to reenter society, notwithstanding the diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform that ordinarily distinguish juveniles from adults. Because the trial courts here decided that question without proper guidance on the sentencing discretion conferred by section 190.5(b) and the considerations that must inform the exercise of that discretion, we remand both cases for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”