Release Date: March 4, 2024
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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In a 5-2 decision released today the California Supreme Court denied a murderer’s claim that he has a constitutional right to eligibility for release from prison even though he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) joined the case of People v. Hardin to argue that an earlier appeals court ruling improperly amended state law to give the murderer and others like him the opportunity for release.

In the court’s majority opinion, Associate Justice Leondra Kruger wrote, “we conclude that Hardin has not demonstrated that Penal Code section 3051’s exclusion of young adult offenders sentenced to life without parole is constitutionally invalid under a rational basis standard, either on its face or as applied to Hardin and other individuals who are serving life without parole sentences for special circumstance murder. ”

The case involves the 1990 conviction of Tony Hardin for the brutal murder of his elderly neighbor Norma Barber. Hardin, who was 25 at the time of the murder, worked as an evening security guard at the Los Angeles apartment complex where both he and Mrs. Barber were neighbors. They were friendly, and Mrs. Barber would occasionally have him over for dinner. April 4, 1989, was the last day that anyone heard from Norma Barber. On April 5, Hardin, a drug addict, tried to trade Mrs. Barber’s necklace for some cocaine. He later pawned three pieces of her jewelry and was seen driving her car. Concerned that Mrs. Barber was not answering her phone, on April 8, her son visited her apartment and found her body underneath a bed. The coroner later determined that she was strangled to death.

Hardin was arrested a few days later after police found his fingerprints in her car, which was parked a few blocks from the apartment. At trial, jurors heard evidence indicating that Hardin had stolen numerous other items and had actually returned to the murder scene a day later to steal her microwave oven and VCR. The jury convicted Hardin of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of robbery, in addition to inflicting great bodily injury, and grand theft auto. While Hardin’s crimes qualified him for the death penalty, the jury unanimously recommended a sentence of LWOP.

After Hardin’s conviction, the California Legislature passed laws providing parole eligibility for convicted murderers sentenced to LWOP who were under 18 years old at the time of the killing. The Legislature also passed a law giving early parole eligibility to murderers under the age of 26 who were sentenced to 25 years to life.

In 2021, Hardin petitioned the Superior Court of Los Angeles County to grant him a hearing to consider his claim that, because he was 25 when he murdered Mrs. Barber, under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause he should be eligible for parole. After the judge rejected the claim, Hardin appealed. In 2022, a three-judge panel of the Second District Court of Appeal upheld his claim, announcing that although state law specifically excluded 25-year-old murderers sentenced to LWOP from parole eligibility, the Constitution required that he be included. The court held that there was no rational basis for the state Legislature to distinguish Hardin from murderers under 18 years old sentenced to LWOP or murderers 25 years old or younger sentenced to 25 years to life.

When the California Supreme Court agreed to hear the state’s appeal, CJLF joined the case. The foundation’s amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief argued that there was a rational basis for the Legislature to exclude murderers like Hardin from parole eligibility. In 1978, 71% of California voters adopted Proposition 7 to restore the state’s death penalty. The initiative specified that criminals over the age of 18 convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances could only be sentenced to death or LWOP. The initiative did not authorize the Legislature to adopt amendments, which leaves the power to amend with the voters through adoption of another initiative. This is why the Legislature has not passed a law giving parole eligibility to murderers over the age of 18 sentenced to LWOP. CJLF also notes that the Equal Protection Clause permits different sentences for defendants who are not “similarly situated.” Hardin is not similarly situated with murderers under 18 years old sentenced to LWOP or 25-year-old murderers sentenced to 25 to life. The U. S. Supreme Court has held that murderers under 18 cannot receive the death penalty or receive a mandatory sentence of LWOP. This means the judge is required to consider the murderer’s age and consider a lesser sentence, but the judge also retains discretion to order LWOP. Murderers given a 25-to-life sentence were convicted of first-degree murder without special circumstances. Hardin was convicted of the more serious crime of first-degree murder with special circumstances, which qualifies him for a death sentence.

The U. S. Supreme Court and California voters have both recognized this distinction.

“The Court of Appeal in this case unconstitutionally amended state law to give some of California’s worst murderers a chance for release. In today’s decision, the California Supreme Court confirmed that such power belongs to the people, not the courts,” said CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.