Oral argument in People v. Moffett set for Tuesday, February 4
The California Supreme Court will hear oral argument Tuesday to review an appeals court ruling that overturned the life-without-parole sentence of a defendant who was under 18 when he was involved in the robbery and murder of a police officer.
The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has joined the case on behalf of the fallen officer's family, seeking a decision to overturn the lower court ruling and reinstate the defendant's sentence.
At issue in the case of People v. Moffett is the defendant's claim that his life-without-parole (LWOP) sentence must be overturned because of a 2012 United States Supreme Court decision.
The high court's ruling in Miller v. Alabama held that state laws requiring a mandatory LWOP sentence for murderers under the age of 18 at the time of the crime violate the Constitution's Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Moffett case involves a criminal (days away from his 18th birthday) who committed an armed robbery along with an accomplice. During their escape, the accomplice shot and killed a police officer.
At around 5:45 p.m. on April 23, 2005, the Raley's supermarket in Pittsburg, California, was holding its grand reopening celebration, when Andrew Moffett and Alexander Hamilton arrived in a stolen car armed with handguns. Moffett approached a cash register, put his gun against the clerk's head, and ordered her to give him the money.
The clerk was frightened and had trouble opening the register so Moffett put the gun against her ear and said, "come on b----, you're taking too f---ing long." She finally got the register opened and gave Moffett about $800.
While Moffett was robbing the clerk, Hamilton was robbing the Wells Fargo service counter inside the store. He pushed his way past two customers and pointed his gun at the two female clerks saying "B----, give me the money or I will shoot you." After they put money in a bag Hamilton was carrying, he and Moffett ran from the store and jumped into the stolen car.
While attempting their escape, they crashed the car into a pickup in a residential neighborhood. Police responded to a call reporting that the suspects were fleeing on foot in a nearby wooded area and had threatened to shoot a resident.
Officers Larry Lasater and John Florance ran down a path and spotted someone standing among some trees. When Officer Lasater called out, Officer Florence heard someone jump a nearby fence. Officer Lasater continued down the path and Hamilton began firing, mortally wounding Officer Lasater. Hamilton continued firing at other responding officers until he ran out of ammunition and was arrested. Minutes later, Moffett was caught shirtless and unarmed hiding in a backyard. Later, police found his gun, shirt, and bag of stolen money along with DNA samples which matched Moffett.
Following Moffett's conviction, the judge noted during sentencing that she was exercising her discretion to give him LWOP, rather than life with parole, due to the circumstances of the crime.
"The actions taken by Mr. Moffett on the day of this event were not those of an irresponsible child," said the judge. "They were the very adult, very violent acts of a young man who showed no regard for the impact of his actions on the victim in this case."
California law provides that juveniles between 16 and 18 years old who are convicted of first-degree special-circumstance murder with special circumstances (a death penalty offense for someone older) are presumed to qualify for a sentence of LWOP unless the judge determines that mitigating factors support a lesser sentence.
While Moffett's conviction and sentence were being reviewed before the state's First District Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court announced its ruling in Miller, barring mandatory LWOP for juvenile murderers.
In October 2012, the Court of Appeal voided Moffett's sentence, finding that it was "contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of Miller." After the California Supreme Court agreed to hear the state's appeal of that ruling, the wife, mother, and brother of Officer Lasater asked the Foundation to file an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief encouraging a decision to overturn the Court of Appeal ruling and reinstate Moffett's sentence. Briefs arguing to uphold the lower court ruling have been introduced by the Juvenile Law Center and Amnesty International.
In its brief, the Foundation argues that California law provides judicial discretion regarding the sentence a juvenile will receive for a conviction of first-degree murder with special circumstances, the state's most serious crime. The Miller ruling addresses only laws which require that juveniles receive a mandatory LWOP sentence for such a crime, without any discretion on the part of the judge to grant a lesser sentence. The Foundation also notes that the suffering by families of murder victims is extended indefinitely when the person who killed their loved one is eligible for parole every few years. One of the purposes of LWOP is to assure that the small number of the very worst murderers, ineligible for a death sentence due to their age, will never go free.
"The 16- and 17-year-old murderers eligible for a life without parole sentence are not children," said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. "In many cases, they are violent, remorseless killers who, if over 18, would be eligible for a death sentence. Andrew Moffett has earned his sentence, and the Supreme Court should assure that it is carried out," he added.