Supreme Court orders review for Rohnert Park murder convict
Published: Monday, January 7, 2013 at 7:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 8:06 a.m.
A Rohnert Park man sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing a Petaluma man during a home-invasion robbery when he was 17 may one day gain his freedom, the result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday.
The ruling is the latest indication of the court's willingness to consider leniency for juvenile offenders, such as Bradley Blackwell, who is now 23 and serving his sentence at Kern Valley State Prison north of Bakersfield.
The high court, without elaboration, directed a California appellate court to reconsider Blackwell's sentence in light of a 2012 Supreme Court decision involving juveniles.
Blackwell was convicted of first-degree murder in the Feb. 7, 2007, shooting death of Uriel Arango-Carreno, 20, as well as special circumstances for its commission during a residential burglary and attempted robbery.
Monday's one-paragraph decision does not guarantee Blackwell will be released from prison but gives him another chance to challenge his sentence. For hundreds, if not thousands, of other inmates nationwide, the decision underscores how a court ruling rendered in 2012 will ripple outward for years to come.
"Today's decision represents the best of the legal profession: Helping forward a truly important conversation," Blackwell's attorney, Donald Thomas Bergerson, said Monday in an interview with The Press Democrat.
Nationwide, more than 2,500 people are serving life without parole for murders committed when they were younger than 18.
In a 5-4 ruling last June, the Supreme Court struck down mandatory life sentences without parole for crimes committed by juveniles. Over the objections of court conservatives, the narrow majority concluded juvenile offenders require special consideration.
"In imposing a state's harshest penalties, a sentencer misses too much if he treats every child as an adult," Justice Elena Kagan wrote then for the majority. "Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features, among them, immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences."
The 2012 decision most immediately affected two inmates from Alabama and Arkansas who'd brought separate but related appeals. More broadly, it affected others who are serving similar sentences.
Last month, for example, a Texas appellate court, acting at the behest of the Supreme Court, reconsidered the life-without-parole sentence of convicted killer Herbert Ray Wilson. Wilson was 17 at the time of the 2007 murder, in which a pregnant Houston woman was killed during an apartment burglary. The appellate judges, guided by the Supreme Court's 2012 sentencing decision, ordered a trial court on Dec. 13 to redo the punishment stage of Wilson's trial.
The reconsideration of strict juvenile sentences also reflects a longer-term trend.
In a 2005 case from Missouri, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence someone to death for a crime committed while younger than 18. In 2010, the court ruled in a Florida case that a juvenile couldn't be sentenced to life without parole for a crime that didn't involve murder and the possibility of a death sentence. Then last year came the decision striking down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.
"The issue we're claiming is that it's unconstitutional to hold a person to forever in custody for an offense he committed before he had a fully-formed brain," Bergerson said.
There's a wrinkle, however, in Blackwell's case, as well as several others that the Supreme Court has sent back recently for a second look at sentencing.
Unlike the juveniles in last year's Supreme Court case, Blackwell wasn't facing a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. The trial court had the option of imposing a lesser sentence, but it chose not to.
Arango-Carreno's family found the slain man in the converted apartment garage where he was living at his aunt's home on Joan Drive, a block from Lucchesi Park. He had been shot five times.
Arango-Carreno was a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, and moved to live with relatives in Sonoma County when he was 17.
Blackwell and his accomplice, Keith Kellum, who was 22 at the time and an ex-convict from Rohnert Park, had set out to rob the man of cash and crystal methamphetamine, according to court records.
Kellum pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and blamed Blackwell for planning the robbery and shooting Arango-Carreno.
Blackwell was tried as an adult, and Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau handed him life without parole, passing over a 25-years-to-life option, although the jury stopped short of convicting him of pulling the trigger.
"After considering, among other things, (Blackwell's) age, his extensive criminal record and the heinous nature of the murder, the sentencing court concluded that 'even at his young age' (Blackwell) 'should not be granted the possibility of parole,' " Seth K. Schalit, supervising California deputy attorney general, wrote in a brief filed on behalf of California.
Schalit further noted that a 2012 California law allows inmates to petition for leniency if they're serving life without parole for crimes committed while under 18. Part of the new law requires inmates to describe their "remorse and work towards rehabilitation."
But Blackwell's attorney said the Supreme Court's decision shows the law is evolving to better recognize "the differences of brain development of juveniles and adults."
"I don't think a person who is under 18 years of age can be a genuinely equal partner with someone who is 22," Bergerson said. "All of this should be taken into consideration."
This story was compiled from reports by Staff Writer Julie Johnson and McClatchy News Service.
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