Life Without Parole for Juveniles in California - Example Case

In People v. Gutierrez (2014) 58 Cal.4th 1354, the court considered the impact of Miller v. Alabama (2012) on Penal Code section 190.5, subdivision (b), which had previously been interpreted "as establishing a presumption in favor of life without parole for juvenile offenders who were 16 years of age or older when they committed special circumstance murder." (Gutierrez, supra, at p. 1369.) The California Supreme Court concluded that "section 190.5, subdivision (b), properly construed, confers discretion on a trial court to sentence a 16- or 17-year-old juvenile convicted of special circumstance murder to life without parole or to 25 years to life, with no presumption in favor of life without parole." (Id. at p. 1360.) The Gutierrez court further held that "consideration of the Miller factors" is required when a sentencing court is determining whether to impose an life without possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence pursuant to section 190.5, subdivision (b). (Gutierrez, supra, at p. 1387.) The Gutierrez court considered whether section 1170, subdivision (d)(2) provided a substitute for the resentencing process mandated by Miller. (Gutierrez, supra, 58 Cal.4th at p. 1386.) Section 1170, subdivision (d)(2) provides a procedural mechanism for resentencing to defendants who were under the age of 18 at the time of the commission of their offenses and who were given LWOP sentences. If the defendant has served at least 15 years of the LWOP sentence, he or she may "submit to the sentencing court a petition for recall and resentencing" ( 1170, subd. (d)(2)(A)(i)), so long as the LWOP sentence was not imposed for certain enumerated offenses (Id., subd. (d)(2)(A)(ii)). The Gutierrez court rejected the Attorney General's argument that the "potential mechanism for resentencing" provided by section 1170, subdivision (d)(2) "means that the initial sentence 'is thus no longer effectively a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.'" (Gutierrez, supra, 58 Cal.4th at p. 1386.) The Gutierrez court reasoned: "A sentence of life without parole under section 190.5, subdivision (b) remains fully effective after the enactment of section 1170, subdivision (d)(2). That is why section 1170, subdivision (d)(2) sets forth a scheme for recalling the sentence and resentencing the defendant." (Ibid.) The Gutierrez court further rejected the Attorney General's claim that section 1170, subdivision (d)(2) "removes life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders from the ambit of Miller's concerns because the statute provides a meaningful opportunity for such offenders to obtain release." (Gutierrez, supra, 58 Cal.4th at p. 1386.) The court held that what Miller required for juvenile offenders sentenced to LWOP was not a "'meaningful opportunity to obtain release'" but a sentencing court's exercise of discretion "'at the outset.'" (Ibid.) In sum, in Gutierrez, our Supreme Court concluded that section 190.5's use of "shall" did not create a statutory presumption in favor of LWOP sentences. The Gutierrez court stated: "It is . . . reasonable to read the text to mean that a court may select one of the two penalties in the exercise of its discretion, with no presumption in favor of one or the other. The latter reading accords with common usage. For example, if a teacher informed her students that 'you must take a final exam or, at your discretion, write a term paper,' it would be reasonable for the students to believe they were equally free to pursue either option. The text of section 190.5, subdivision (b) does not clearly indicate whether the statute was intended to make life without parole the presumptive sentence." (People v. Gutierrez, supra, 58 Cal.4th at p. 1371.)