California trial judges may not impose life without parole sentences on juveniles without first considering the youth of the offender and whether age diminishes the sentence justification, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday in the case of a 16-year-old sentenced to life in 1993.
In 1993, Kristopher Kirchner robbed and murdered a gun store owner, beating him to death with a metal pipe. He was tried as an adult and following a murder, burglary and robbery conviction. Although he was found to be amenable to treatment and training prior to his sentence, the trial judge rejected the recommendation of the California Youth Authority and sentenced him to life without parole.
Although Kirchner appealed, no opening brief was filed and the appeal was dropped.
In 2014, Kirchner asked for resentencing to take into account the factors required in a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court precendent that were not in place at the time Kirchner’s original sentence, including the youth of the offender and the appropriateness of the sentence.
The California Supreme Court unanimously ordered the case back to the trial court to reconsider those factors, applying those precedents retroactively to his case.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Eighth Amendment, ban on cruel and unusual punishment, prohibits sentencing schemes that mandate life without parole sentences for all juvenile offenders convicted of a specific murder offense.
The high court cited a child’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change.
The California Supreme Court relied on that standard, that when considering life in prison without parole for juveniles, a court should consider the offender’s chronological age, immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences, family and home environment and the extent of the juvenile’s participation in the crime and peer pressures.
Under the new interpretation, defendants such as Kirchner are entitled to new sentencing hearing if they were “sentenced without the appropriate consideration of factors bearing on their youth at the time of their offense, and the relationship of those factors to proportionate punishment,” the court wrote.
Case: In re Kristopher Kirchner, No. S233508