A quarter-century later, the pain caused by that double murder hasn’t changed. But something else has: How society sentences the teenagers who perpetrate such crimes.
U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall, a Clinton appointee, made that difference clear on Tuesday morning as she considered resentencing Cruz, who’d been put away for life without parole for the murders of the two New Haveners, based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent guidance on juvenile offenders, reported the New Haven Independent.
During a three-hour hearing in the Church Street courthouse, Judge Hall recounted Cruz’s childhood on the mean streets of Bridgeport, heard devastating testimony from the victim Tyler White’s New Haven family about how the murders broke them, and questioned a social worker about whether Cruz had truly changed.
Cruz also spoke up for himself.
“I can confidently tell everyone I’m definitely not that stupid, close-minded kid who hurt so many people with my actions,” he said, as he testified that he planned to work with at-risk youth — “the not-yet victims and not-yet offenders” — if the judge would one day release him. “My hope is that will be even the smallest consolation, that others wouldn’t have to go through what I’ve put them through. This is not what I want to be known for, Your Honor.”
Weighing that evidence, Judge Hall ultimately decided to cut Cruz, now 43 years old, a break, dropping his sentence to 35 years in prison.
Judge Hall said Tuesday that she based her decision largely on the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Miller v. Alabama. In that 2012 case, the high court’s justices were deciding whether life in prison without parole was an allowable punishment for a 14-year-old who’d clubbed a man with baseball bat, then burned him alive inside his trailer.
The four liberal justices, joined by swing-vote Anthony Kennedy, ruled that sentence constituted a “cruel and unusual punishment,” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The four conservative justices disagreed, saying the high court’s job was overstepping its duties in setting a moral standard for the country.
Since then, judges have been interpreting just who counts as a “child,” and Hall has been more willing than others to extend the high court’s reasoning to those who are over 18 years old.
Based on the latest developmental research, experts are suggesting that teenagers might be able to argue that their sentences should be reviewed all the way up to age 24.
While she didn’t want to assign a brightline for adulthood, Hall said she’d consider Cruz, who was just five months past his 18th birthday when he killed White and Diaz, close enough to a juvenile to review his lifetime sentence. She said that also fit with a general trend in sentencing, as only one 18-year-old had been given life in prison without parole in the federal system from 2010 to 2015, according to a U.S. Sentencing Commission report.
Another nearby federal judge, however, a New Yorker presiding over the trials of three murderous gang-bangers from the Bronx who were between 18 and 22 years old, has disagreed, still handing down life without parole to youngsters. That case is currently being challenged before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
The lawyers in Hall’s courtroom on Tuesday sparred too, arguing about how much responsibility a young adult should take for their actions, even if the teenage brain isn’t fully developed.
Was Cruz fully culpable at 18 years old when he put a gun against White’s head? Was Cruz fully culpable at 20 years old when he lied about committing the crime at his initial sentencing? Was Cruz fully culpable at 26 years old when he tried to cut ties with the Latin Kings? Was Cruz fully culpable at 43 years old when he still wouldn’t give up a childhood friend who’d been involved in the double murder?
“He was mature enough not to leave a bystander as a witness; so he decided to shoot Tyler White in the head twice,” Patricia Stolfi Collins, an assistant United States attorney, wrote in a brief. “And he was mature enough to know that the business of murder, once begun, should not be left unfinished; and so he helped chase and wrestle down Diaz, as he pled for his life, so that his accomplice could shoot him again and again.”
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