California Appeal Court Declares Life Without Parole Sentence Unconstitutional for 14-Year-Old Antonio Nunez


On April 30, 2009, a California appeal court struck down a life imprisonment without parole sentence imposed on Antonio Nunez, a 14-year-old child convicted of aggravated kidnapping. The court declared the sentence to be cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment and the California Constitution.

In 2007, the Equal Justice Initiative challenged the life imprisonment without parole sentence imposed on 14-year-old Antonio Nunez, arguing that condemning young children to die in prison is unconstitutional. The California Supreme Court ordered further review of the case and today the Court of Appeal held that the death-in-prison sentence imposed on Antonio Nunez is “so arbitrary that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.”

EJI attorney Bryan Stevenson represents Antonio Nunez and argued his case at the Court of Appeal last October. “We’re very encouraged by the Court’s thoughtful and careful analysis of the issue presented by this case,” Stevenson said today. “Young children who commit serious crimes may need punishment but those punishments must be reasonable and thoughtful. Hopelessly condemning 14-year-old children to die in prison is at odds with everything our constitutional norms and values are designed to protect.”

Antonio Nunez spent his childhood in a dangerous South Central Los Angeles neighborhood. Shortly after his 13th birthday, Antonio was riding a bicycle near his home when he was shot multiple times in a drive-by shooting. His brother, who was 14 years old, ran to help Antonio and was shot in the head and killed. Antonio was critically injured and underwent emergency surgery to repair his intestines.

In the wake of his brother’s murder, Antonio suffered severe trauma and depression. After he was released from the hospital, Antonio left South Central and spent over six months with family in Nevada before he had to return to Los Angeles.

Within weeks of his return to his home in South Central, 14-year-old Antonio got into a car with two older men who picked him up at a party. One of the men later claimed to be a kidnap victim.

Antonio acknowledged responsibility for his actions on the day of his arrest. He testified that, when plainclothes police in unmarked vans chased their car, he fired a gun out of fear that the occupants of the van would shoot him, just as he had been shot the day his brother was killed.

When he saw a marked police vehicle activate its light, Antonio dropped the gun to the floor and left it there. Seconds later, the car crashed into some trees. Antonio was arrested and charged with, among other offenses, aggravated kidnapping.

No one was injured during the chase, but Antonio was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

The United States is the only country in the world where children as young as 13 and 14 are sentenced to die in prison.