Sacramento Superior Court Judge Raoul M. Thorbourne agreed Friday that defense attorney Russell W. Miller had a pretty good point when it comes to the quirks of sentencing young people to prison.
Miller expounded on how he thought the justice system gets it wrong when it allows 17-year-olds to be sentenced as adults but contains no provisions that allow for the sentencing of immature 18-year-olds as minors.
Thorbourne told Miller his logic flowed brilliantly.
Then he sentenced Miller’s client, Cassondra LaDawnya Belton, to life in prison, with no chance of parole.
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“It is a judgment that belongs to the people, not the courts or Legislature,” Thorbourne said.
A jury in July convicted Belton, who is now 22, of first-degree murder with the special-circumstance finding of robbery in the killing of Baljinder Kumar, 37, a man who made his money selling OxyContin and other controlled substances on the street.
The judge delayed Belton’s sentencing five times so he could read a report that Miller wanted prepared on the defendant’s psycho-social maturity.
Miller told Thorbourne the judge had the discretion to stray from the proscriptions of sentencing law if he found that even if Belton wasn’t psychiatrically deficient, there was a “borderline issue of maturity.”
“I’ve hopefully blurred the line at the 18-year-old,” Miller said.
Thorbourne nodded his head as he followed Miller’s argument, but when it came to rejecting the mandatory life-without-parole term, he told the defense lawyer, “I don’t know if I have the authority to do that.”
According to sheriff’s booking records, Belton was actually 19 when she and two of her friends robbed and strangled Kumar and dumped his dead body in a ditch with his pants pulled down to his thighs.
The two accomplices, Monica Ortiz and Kevin Hjellum, were 17 at the time of Kumar’s killing, which took place probably one or two days before the Dec. 18, 2010, discovery of his body on Hood Franklin Road a little bit west of the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
A probation report filed Friday quoted witnesses who identified Ortiz as a sometime prostitute who did business with Kumar and who knew him to carry lots of cash.
Belton and her two young friends arranged a phony drug deal where Kumar was supposed to make a wholesale buy, according to the report.
The four of them drove to an apartment building, with Belton, who weighs 300 pounds, taking a seat in the car behind Kumar.
Parked outside the apartment building, she threw a belt over Kumar’s head and started the job of choking him, the report said.
Kumar struggled, but Hjellum and Ortiz helped Belton finish him off, according to her probation report.
The three teens then dropped Kumar’s body off in the country – and went on a shopping spree in the dead man’s Impala with $1,000 in cash each.
According to the probation report, a California Highway Patrol officer spotted the stolen car driving “erratically” near Oroville and pulled it over. This was the day after Kumar’s body turned up on Hood Franklin Road.
Hjellum and Ortiz both had outstanding warrants and were taken into custody, while Belton was booked for auto theft when one of the plates on the Impala came back registered to a Cadillac.
The charge for all three was upgraded to murder a couple days later when Belton’s cell number turned up in Kumar’s phone and she made some damaging admissions to Sacramento sheriff’s detectives, the probation report said.
Last year, Ortiz and Hjellum pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges. Thorbourne sentenced them both to 15-years-to-life, an “inducement,” the prosecutor said, to get them to enter their pleas.
“It’s a simple fact of life in the justice system,” Deputy District Attorney Doug Whaley said, of the reduced sentences in exchange for guilty pleas.
Whaley said Belton rejected a “similar” deal. Miller said it would have required her to plead guilty to first-degree murder with a 25-to-life term.
The prosecutor argued strongly against the judge giving any consideration to the maturity issue, saying it could turn the courthouse into a circus, with judges scheduling “mini-trials on every adult’s maturity level.”
Thorbourne told Miller that if there ever was a case where he’d like to help an adult in a special-circumstance case get out from under the life without parole term, it would be Cassondra Belton’s.
“I take no pleasure in sentencing Ms. Belton as I’m going to do here in a minute,” he said before he sent her away in handcuffs.
The judge noted that she had no prior criminal record. Then he turned his attention to the three young killers’ upbringings.
“Their moral compass was completely out of whack,” he said.
He said of Belton: “She got to a place where she was willing to kill somebody because she had a broken moral compass, because people in her background failed her, and if there was some way of locking up those people, I would.”
Belton’s mother and two other relatives attended the sentencing hearing. They declined to comment on the judge’s remarks, and left the courtroom in tears.