Court ordered to review life-without-parole sentence for Navajo teen

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ordered a resentencing Monday for a Navajo man who was sentenced to life without parole for murder and conspiracy to murder in 2002, when he was just 16 years old.

Branden Pete had already had his sentence reduced to 59 years after the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that a mandatory sentence of life without parole – as Pete’s was – when applied to a minor is unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual punishment.”

But the judge at Pete’s second sentencing rejected his request for a neuropsychological expert to help him make his case, with the judge ruling that any finding by that expert would be “duplicative” of testimony from the original 2003 trial.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, saying that denying access to an expert “prevented Pete from developing and presenting potentially useful mitigating evidence.” It sent the case back to district court, where it ordered the court to grant Pete’s request for an expert and to resentence him after that.

“A new evaluation could have shown whether the youthful characteristics that contributed to Pete’s crime had dissipated with time, or whether, instead, Pete is the ‘rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,'” wrote Judge Marsha Berzon for the appeals court.

A spokesman for the U.S Attorney for Arizona said Monday that the office would not have a comment on the ruling. A call to Pete’s attorney, Atmore Baggot, was not immediately returned.

The case began in May 2002 when Pete, then 16, was riding with his friend Harris James, 20, Irvin Cepi, who was 23, and James’ father, Hoskie James, 41. All four were drinking that day when they stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, Charlotte Brown.

They later stopped the car, got out and took turns raping Brown, according to court documents, before they all got back into the car and drove off. But worried that Brown might contact police, they pulled over and Cepi hit her in the head with a large rock while Harris James and Pete held her down.

When that didn’t kill her, Pete threw another rock, which was apparently the lethal blow. Pete and Cepi dragged Brown’s body into a ditch and covered it with rocks, then returned home where Pete and Harris James burned her clothes and theirs.

After the remains were discovered, Pete was arrested and turned over to federal prosecutors who sought to have him tried as an adult.

Before his trial, Pete was evaluated by Dr. Herschel Rosenzweig, who determined that Pete’s parents were “severe alcoholics,” that he was an alcoholic with a “long history of learning difficulties” and that he was physically abused by his father, according to court documents.

But Rosenzweig also said Pete was cordial, polite and cooperative and that he was “a very salvageable young man” who, with the right treatment and support, had “the potential of becoming a responsible and productive citizen.”

Pete was tried as an adult in October 2005 and convicted by a jury of second-degree and felony murder, as well as conspiracy to murder. He was given two concurrent sentences of life without parole.

He appealed in 2013 after the Supreme Court decision that “requires the court to give a juvenile offender ‘an opportunity to present mitigating evidence to support a sentence less than life without parole,'” court documents stated.

But the district court judge rejected his request for a new psychological examination saying it would not change the mitigating factors considered in the first sentence, including Pete’s substance abuse and rough childhood. The Rosenzweig evaluation “encompasses the matters which the neuropsychologist intends to evaluate, rendering a second evaluation duplicative,” the district court said.

Pete argued that a new examination would shed light on the harm he faced in prison, where he spent much of his time in solitary because of threats for him being identified as a sex offender.

The district court said the impact of incarceration is not the type of mitigating factor the new Supreme Court decision calls for. The lower court judge considered Pete’s multiple disciplinary infractions in prison as a sign he was not reformed.

At resentencing, the district judge said Pete would still pose a threat if released and calculated his new sentence to let him out of prison at age 75, “when you will certainly be beyond the age of probably violent behavior.”

But the appeals court said that a new examination of Pete’s “psychological maturation and personal evolution” could affect the weight given to these circumstances and help determine how much of his crime was influenced by age.

“An expert’s testimony could have bolstered Pete’s arguments that the infractions … reflected external stressors (such as mistreatment by other inmates), not some inherently and intractable defect in Pete’s mature personality,” Berzon wrote.