ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The state Supreme Court has ruled it is constitutional for a juvenile who pleaded no contest in a shooting that left another teenager a quadriplegic to get a 25-year sentence in an adult prison - even though there was no jury trial to decide whether he could be rehabilitated.
The 4-1 ruling came over the vociferous dissent of one justice and opposition from national juvenile law groups.
Justice Edward Chávez railed against the majority decision as one that "ignores over 125 years of historical common law practice."
"The framers of the Bill of Rights would be alarmed to learn that a child can be condemned to an adult prison for up to a life sentence without at least the same constitutional provisions afforded adults," he wrote in a dissent. The majority said the guarantee of a jury trial does not apply in the type of hearing that landed Rudy B. an aggravated sentence. "Our courts have labored for years" over whether the right to a jury trial applies to decisions on whether a juvenile can be rehabilitated, says the majority opinion by Justice Richard Bosson. Citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the New Mexico court said a jury trial is not required
in so-called amenability hearings in juvenile proceedings.
The 4-1 opinion reverses a unanimous Court of Appeals, which had sent the case back to Children's Court for resentencing.
The state Public Defender Office has signaled it likely will seek a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
At issue is a Children's Court case filed after a 2005 shooting during a gang fight in an Albuquerque restaurant parking lot. Briefs say Rudy, then 17, believed rival teenagers were going to their car to retrieve guns when he pulled out his gun and shot, thinking, "I'll just get out of here without hurting nobody or nothing." Instead, one teen was grazed by a bullet and another injured so severely he was rendered quadriplegic.
Rudy was charged as a youthful offender. He pleaded no contest to two counts of shooting at or from a motor vehicle resulting in great bodily harm and two counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.
His plea deal specified a hearing on his amenability to rehabilitation.
Apparently based in part on the lack of services available to an older juvenile offender, Children's Court Judge Monica Zamora found he was "not amenable to treatment or rehabilitation as a child in available facilities as of today."
A juvenile probation officer told the court Rudy was amenable to treatment, "the question was are the programs available," particularly for an older juvenile offender.
Psychologists reached conflicting opinions on Rudy's prospects for rehabilitation. The state's psychologist acknowledged he had been a model prisoner, but believed his behavior showed an adaptation to the power structure at the detention center. The defense psychologist said Rudy recognized the need to permanently change his behavior and was committed to doing so. Zamora sentenced Rudy as an adult and ordered that his sentences be served consecutively rather than concurrently, effectively lengthening the amount of time in prison.
As the high court noted in its opinion, Zamora found that no suitable facilities or services could treat Rudy to a level that would adequately protect the public by the time he turned 21, the age at which the Children's Court would lose jurisdiction.
Rudy's appellate lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Theodosia Johnson, argued that New Mexico sends a juvenile into the adult system only as part of sentencing. And under a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision, she said any fact that increases a penalty must be decided by a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
The state argued that replacing a judge's decision with a jury's would undermine the purpose of the youthful offender statute. That law was drafted to permit adult consequences for juvenile offenders "whose actions, background, history and character indicate that the juvenile system cannot provide a sufficient likelihood of rehabilitation," Assistant Attorney General Victoria Wilson said in court documents.
The majority opinion says since the state's first juvenile code was enacted in 1917, "our statutes and case law make it clear that it is the trial judge, not the jury, who decides whether to invoke an adult sentence based on a child's amenability to treatment."
Chávez said the majority should not tolerate a disparity in treatment that means "a child faces an even more drastic increase in his or her sentence than an adult faces."
The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, joined by four children's law projects and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association on behalf of Rudy, urged the court to find the youthful offender statute unconstitutional. The sentencing scheme, they contended, "converts the juvenile proceeding into the functional equivalent of an adult criminal trial, with the associated focus on blame and punishment rather than treatment."