California Appeal Court Holds Virtual Life-Without-Parole Sentence Imposed on 14-Year-Old Child Is Unconstitutional


EJI won a ruling from the California Court of Appeal yesterday striking down a 175-year sentence imposed on 14-year-old Antonio Nunez for an offense in which no one was injured. The court held that the logic of Graham v. Florida, which declared life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences unconstitutional for children convicted of nonhomicide offenses, applies to term of years sentences that are the practical equivalent of life in prison without parole.

In 2007, EJI 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 Court of Appeal agreed, and in a 2009 decision, declared the sentence to be cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment and the California Constitution. After the appellate court invalidated his sentence, the trial court imposed a sentence requiring Antonio to serve 175 years before qualifying for a parole hearing, and EJI appealed.

EJI’s Bryan Stevenson argued that, under the constitutional ruling in Graham and the California court’s ruling in In re Nunez, there was no difference between a life-without-parole sentence and a sentence to 175 years.

The appeals court agreed, finding that a “term of years effectively denying any possibility of parole is no less severe than an LWOP term.” The court concluded that “[f]inding a determinate sentence exceeding a juvenile’s life expectancy constitutional because it is not labeled an LWOP sentence is Orwellian. Simply put, a distinction based on changing a label, as the trial court did, is arbitrary and baseless.” It reversed Antonio’s sentence “because it violates the state and federal Constitutions by denying his a meaningful opportunity for release within his lifetime.”