Court vacates sentence for teen gang member given life without parole

A federal appeals court said the life sentence that Riley Briones Jr. received for gang-related crimes he committed while a juvenile needs to be reviewed, in light of a Supreme Court ruling that such sentences should apply to only the “rarest” cases of minors who cannot be rehabilitated. (Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court vacated the sentence for a Phoenix-area gang member who was still a teen when he got a mandatory life without parole sentence for crimes that “terrorized” the Salt River reservation in the 1990s.

A divided 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that since Riley Briones Jr.’s sentencing in 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court has banned life without parole except for “the rarest” of juveniles who are permanently incorrigible – and Briones has been a model prisoner.

It will be the second resentencing for Briones, whose life sentence was reimposed in 2016 by U.S. District Judge Douglas Rayes after he reviewed it in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

In a dissent Tuesday, Circuit Judge Mark Bennett disagreed with the majority and said the district court got it right, saying Rayes “did exactly” what the Supreme Court requires in such cases.

“The district court very clearly considered Briones’s youth, youth-related characteristics, and post-incarceration rehabilitation efforts,” before deciding that a life sentence was proper considering the crimes involved, Bennett wrote.

Briones was convicted of murder, arson, assault and tampering with a witness as part of a string of crimes committed in 1994 and 1995 by the Eastside Crips Rolling 30’s, a gang founded and led by him, his brother Ricardo and his father, Riley Sr.

The gang repeatedly firebombed rival gang members’ homes, set other fires to divert firefighters from the firebomb attacks and engaged in a drive-by shooting of one house, court documents show. They also violently assaulted a fellow gang member they suspected of cooperating with police, and discussed plans to blow up the Salt River Police Department and kill a tribal judge and federal prosecutors.

Riley Jr. was just weeks shy of his 18th birthday when he took part in the robbery of a Subway restaurant that ended in the murder of Brian Patrick Lindsay, the sole employee in the store at the time. Briones was driving the getaway car, but the district court said he had planned the crime and was a “pillar of strength” for the gunman, who came out and spoke briefly to Briones before returning to the store and shooting Lindsay repeatedly.

Briones refused a 20-year plea agreement and went to trial, where he was convicted on 10 counts including murder, which carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole at the time. He remains in the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix.

But in the intervening two decades, Briones has been a model prisoner, Circuit Judge Morgan Christen wrote in her opinion Tuesday.

“In addition to maintaining a perfect disciplinary record, Briones held a job in food service; volunteered to speak with young inmates about how to change their lives; completed his GED,” Christen wrote.

She also noted that his behavior came before the Supreme Court’s ruling on life sentences for juveniles, meaning “the only plausible motivation for his spotless prison record was improvement for improvement’s sake.”

“This is precisely the sort of evidence of capacity for change that is key to determining whether a defendant is permanently incorrigible,” a key to the Supreme Court’s ruling, she said.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life without parole for juveniles constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” because it did not account for a youth’s capacity for rehabilitation. In subsequent cases, the high court said a life sentence should be reserved for the “rarest of juvenile offenders” whose crimes reflect “irreparable corruption.”

Under that ruling, Christen said, courts “must reorient the sentencing analysis to a forward-looking assessment of the defendant’s capacity for change or propensity for incorrigibility, rather than a backward-focused review of the defendant’s criminal history.” It was not clear the district court judge did that, she wrote, which is why the sentence needs to be considered again.

“If subsequent events effectively show that the defendant has changed or is capable of changing,” Christen said, life without parole is not an option for a juvenile, “even when they commit terrible crimes.”

But Bennett said there was ample evidence that Judge Rayes did consider Briones’ age, his troubled background and his exemplary life behind bars before ultimately deciding that “some decisions have lifelong consequences” and that a life sentence was appropriate for his crimes.

“The record supports that Briones’s crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility, as opposed to transient immaturity,” Bennett wrote. “The district court therefore imposed a permissible sentence.”

Christen said the case was sent back so the district court could “explain its sentence sufficiently to permit meaningful review,” a move that Bennett said was merely asking Rayes “to do again what (he) has already done.”