By Teresa Chin
SAN FRANCISCO - Should a judge be able to sentence a 16-year-old to 110 years in prison if he didn’t actually kill anyone? That is the question behind the court case The People vs. Rodrigo Caballero, which began opening statements before the California State Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon.
In June 2007, then 16-year-old Rodrigo Caballero fired several shots at three Palmdale teenagers, one of whom suffered a non-fatal but serious injury. Caballero was convicted of three counts of attempted murder – each with a minimum sentence of 15 years-to-life – as well as three special enhancements for firing a gun, belonging to a gang, and greatly injuring one of his victims.
Under California law, certain factors in association with a crime trigger automatic sentence extensions called “enhancements.” These enhancements can greatly extend an offender’s time in prison, particularly when there are multiple victims involved, because he has to serve them consecutively. In Caballero’s case, his enhancements amounted to 110 years in prison (for details on this sentence, see the graphic “110 years-to-life.”)
(How do you end up with a hundred year sentence? Based on information provided by attorney David Durchfort)
Caballero’s case is one of several recent appeals that involve juveniles being sentenced to extraordinarily long sentences for non-murder offenses. In another California case, a 14-year-old was sentenced to 170 years without parole for aggravated kidnapping. According to attorney David Durchfort, who argued on behalf of Caballero’s appeal, California has the highest number of any state of minors serving life-without-parole sentences.
While the US Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that it is unconstitutional to sentence a minor to “life without parole” except for homicide, cases like Caballero’s fall under a gray area based on the wording of the law. Even though Caballero will almost certainly die in prison before he is eligible for parole (at the age of 126), his sentence may still be considered constitutional because it does not explicitly contain the magic words “life without parole.”
Nationally, juveniles can still be sentenced to life without parole if they are convicted of murder. But this may soon change depending on the US Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling on a pair of cases, Miller and Jackson. The US Supreme Court banned the death penalty for juveniles back in 2005.