Courts consider how many years means life
Desmond Lamont Payton has spent more than half of his life in prison.
Because he was a juvenile when he committed three murders, the law says his sentence — life without the possibility of parole — can now be modified, giving him a “meaningful opportunity” for release.
But what does “meaningful” mean in this context? If a prisoner is likely to die of natural causes before his first parole hearing, is that the same as sentencing him to life without parole?
It’s a question the California Supreme Court is expected to consider in coming months, and it’s one of many the lower courts are pondering as they wrestle with how to resentence some former juvenile offenders.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Joan Weber granted Payton’s request to be resentenced in May but postponed his resentencing hearing last week. The judge said she wanted to wait for the higher court’s rulings on two Los Angeles County cases that deal with similar issues.
“Why would we not delay this sentencing to get the guidance from the Supreme Court?” she asked the lawyers in court last week, noting that the court’s rulings would affect dozens of cases throughout the state. “I’m not comfortable without guidance from the court of appeal.”
Now 38, Payton was a teenager when he gunned down three friends at a Serra Mesa hotel in 1992. He’s been in prison for nearly 23 years.
The District Attorney’s Office contends that 90 years to life is an appropriate prison term for Payton, given the seriousness of his crimes and the number of victims.
But defense lawyer Mary Ellen Attridge has argued that a sentence that does not allow Payton a chance to be released on parole within his lifetime violates his constitutional rights. Attridge and Weber cited research in court last week that places the natural life expectancy of a black man in prison somewhere between 63 and 74 years.
“Mr. Payton believes that it is this court’s duty to determine what constitutes ‘meaningful,’ and he believes ‘meaningful’ is defined as a sentence that provides juvenile offenders significant remaining life expectancy at the time of their parole hearing,” Attridge wrote in court documents.
The judge said she wanted more information from the lawyers about how life expectancy factors into Payton’s case, and information from case law that discusses what constitutes a “de facto” sentence of life without parole.
Would 75 years to life qualify? What about 50 years to life?
“I’m not seeing anything anywhere that says 75 years to life can pass constitutional muster,” Weber said last week, agreeing in part with the defense attorney’s argument. But the judge said the three killings for which Payton was convicted put his case in a difficult category.
“If I had to resentence today, I would be leaning in the area of 50 to life,” Weber said.
The option for such offenders to be resentenced comes from the California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, also known as Senate Bill 9, which allowed offenders sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed when they were under age 18 to petition the court for resentencing once they’ve spent at least 15 years in prison.
The Legislature passed the bill, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in 2012, weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court barred mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life without parole. Supporters have said the changes to federal and state law recognize that minors differ from adults in how they make decisions, evaluate risk and respond to negative influences.
The advocacy group Human Rights Watch has said more than 2,500 people who were under 18 when they committed their crimes are serving life in prison without parole in the United States. More than 300 were sentenced in California, and about half of those inmates are likely to fit the criteria for resentencing.
Last year, the state Legislature passed another bill — Senate Bill 260 — that modified the parole process to take into account a juvenile offender’s age at the time of the crime. Its purpose was to give youths serving lengthy adult prison terms for certain crimes a “meaningful opportunity” for release. That law took effect in January.
Attridge, a deputy alternate public defender, has argued that Payton should be resentenced to 30 years to life for the crimes he committed when he was 16 years old.
On May 4, 1992, he shot three teenagers at a Holiday Inn on Aero Drive. Two of the victims were killed because he suspected them of sexually assaulting his girlfriend, and the third was killed to eliminate a witness to the shootings.
Four months earlier, Payton had been released from an inpatient psychiatric hospital where he stayed for three weeks, according to court documents.
Deputy District Attorney Marcella McLaughlin has said Payton should be sentenced to 90 years to life. That breaks down to consecutive terms of 25 years to life for each of the three murders, plus 15 years for gun-use allegations.
The prosecutor said she may have to modify her initial request if the case law changes by the time Weber makes her decision sometime next year. But whatever sentence the judge ultimately chooses, it isn’t likely to bring much comfort to the victims’ family members, who know that Payton may be eligible for parole someday.
“They, frankly, feel that they have already lost,” the prosecutor said. “Their peace of mind was gone when I called them last summer.”
Attridge argued that Payton has changed during more than two decades in prison. He sought out educational and volunteer opportunities, participated in alcohol and drug programs and became a “cooperative and compliant prisoner.”