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.