The California Supreme Court soon will decide whether a defendant, under age 18, who was involved in an armed robbery and the murder of a police officer, should be eligible for parole. The issue in People v. Moffett is whether Moffett’s sentence of life without parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
In 2005, Andrew Moffett, four days away from his 18th birthday, and an accomplice named Alexander Hamilton committed an armed robbery of Raley’s supermarket in Pittsburg.
They arrived in a stolen car. Moffett approached a cash register, placed his gun against the clerk’s head and ordered her to give him the money. When she hesitated, he said, “Come on (expletive), you’re taking too (expletive) long.” She gave him $800.
While Moffett was robbing the clerk, Hamilton robbed the employees at the Wells Fargo service counter. Moffett and Hamilton ran to their car and sped from the store, but crashed into a truck. They then fled on foot.
Pittsburg Police Officer Larry Lasater gave chase and called out. Hamilton fired numerous shots at Lasater, mortally wounding him. Hamilton was arrested only after he ran out of ammunition.
Moffett was located, shirtless, in a backyard. His gun, shirt and the Raley’s money were found nearby.
Upon his conviction in Contra Costa County Superior Court, Hamilton was sentenced to death. Following Moffett’s conviction, the judge announced she could sentence Moffett to either life without parole or life with possibility of parole, but decided life without parole was appropriate, given his actions on the day of the murder and his criminal history.
The judge said, “The actions taken by Mr. Moffett were not those of an irresponsible child.
“They were the very adult, violent acts of a young man who showed no regard for the impact of his actions on the victims in this case.”
In 2011, the Court of Appeal voided Moffett’s LWOP sentence on the grounds that the U.S. Supreme Court previously ruled that state laws making life-without-parole sentences mandatory for murderers under age 18 were unconstitutional. It ordered the sentence changed to permit the possibility of parole.
California law does not require life-without-parole sentences for all juvenile murderers.
The law gives trial courts discretion to impose life without parole or life with possibility of parole, but it does contain a preference for a sentence of life without parole.
The California Supreme Court will soon decide whether the appellate court’s decision or the original trial court’s sentence is correct.
The defense argues that a presumptive life-without-parole sentence is as unconstitutionally cruel as a mandatory one, because it does not consider fundamental differences between adults and juveniles.
It contends a juvenile necessarily is less culpable and has a greater capacity for change.
The defense maintains that physical and social sciences have shown that juveniles far more than adults are prone to transient rashness, proclivity for risk and an inability to assess consequences.
Accordingly, it claims that a juvenile’s moral transgressions are not as reprehensible as those of an adult and that life without parole sentences do not allow for neurological growth and the reform of deficiencies such as immaturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility.
The prosecution makes four arguments. The first is the obvious one. The U.S. Supreme Court prohibits mandatory life without parole for juvenile murderers, but California law is by definition discretionary — not mandatory.
The prosecution also cites the pain and heartache inflicted on the family of murder victims by a killer’s possibility of parole. Each year, hundreds of convicted murderers sentenced to life imprisonment are considered for parole.
The process tortures surviving family members as inmates use attorneys paid with tax dollars to argue for release.
Families cannot escape the inevitable stress, depression and exhaustion the continuous cycle of this hearing process creates. It is as if the parole process was designed to wear down and defeat the survivors of murder victims.
The prosecution also justifies the sentence of life without parole on other grounds.
While Moffett was not the triggerman in Lasater’s murder, his degree of participation in the crime spree leading up to the murder was substantial.
He personally robbed an employee, threatened her at gunpoint with immediate death and drove with Hamilton in a stolen car. While Moffett may not have planned Lasater’s murder, Moffett clearly demonstrated a willingness to kill.
Finally, the prosecution concludes that the trial court properly relied upon evidence of the impact that Lasater’s murder had, not just upon his family, but upon the community as a whole.
Convicted defendants have a right at sentencing to present an argument and mitigating evidence. Victims should have equal rights, and those rights are meaningless if the court ignores what is presented.
The issues here are complex and involve the very foundation of Western civilization — the family unit.
Whatever our Supreme Court’s decision may be, it will have profound and far-reaching legal and social implications.
O’Reilley is an adjunct professor at California State University East Bay and a former Napa deputy district attorney.