Sacramento’s ‘community of victims’ fight law shortening sentences for young killers

They are a community now, sharing a bond known only by those whose lives have been ravaged by violent crime.

Nicole Clavo lost a young son, killed by a gunshot three years ago as he sat at a north Sacramento intersection in a car full of his high school football teammates. The alleged gunman was 15.

Victoria Hurd’s mother and her mother’s husband were attacked as they slept in 2013, murdered, then mutilated in the bedroom of their Davis condominium. Their killer was 15.

Their grief turned to action last fall after a California senate bill that barred 14- and 15-year-olds from being tried as adults for murder and other serious crimes was signed into law. The possibility of decades-long prison sentences for the young men charged in their loved ones’ murders was exchanged for a new reality: Daniel Marsh, serving time for slaughtering 79-year-old Claudia Maupin and Maupin’s husband Oliver “Chip” Northup; and Keymontae Lindsey, charged with shooting Jaulon “J.J.” Clavo, could be set free when they turn 25.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1391 in October, expanding on criminal justice reforms laid out in 2016’s Proposition 57, with its goal of rehabilitating young offenders and reducing the number of incarcerated young people. Voters approved Prop. 57 with the mandate that juvenile court judges, not prosecutors, would decide whether minors younger than 16 should be tried as adults for serious crimes. Prior to Prop. 57, prosecutors could charge 14- and 15-year-olds as adults in cases of murder, arson, robbery, rape or kidnapping, subjecting them to longer sentences if convicted.

Now, Clavo and Hurd want the new law overturned.

“A family reached out to me. Their daughter was killed. The young man (who allegedly killed her) was weeks before his 16th birthday,” Clavo said earlier this week, deriding a law “passed in the middle of the night, without people’s voices, without victims’ voices ... after the voters of California made a decision.”

“There’s a growing community of victims dealing with the fallout of Senate Bill 1391,” she said.

Dr. Nicole Clavo, center, greets several supporters during a rally sponsored by Victims Rights United of California on the west steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento on Thursday, April 7, 2016. In November of 2015 Clavo’s son - J.J. Clavo - was shot and killed on his way to a football game at Grant High School in Sacramento. Randall Benton rbenton@sacbee.com

That community is the backdrop for an intensifying legal fight that could change the course of juvenile justice in California. Prosecutors in the Sacramento region and throughout California have made good on the promise to challenge SB 1391 since it went into effect Jan. 1, setting up a battle that could ultimately be decided at the state Supreme Court.

“Our position then, as now, is that 1391 is unconstitutional but (the legislature) passed it regardless,” said Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig, whose office prosecuted Marsh. He added DAs are “independently filing appeals as they see fit.”

Judges have weighed in on at least four SB 1391 cases in Sacramento Superior Court alone, including two of the area’s more wrenching homicides in recent years: Clavo’s homicide, which rocked the close-knit Del Paso Heights community, where the young man was a star athlete on the Grant High School football team; and the bludgeoning death in July 2016 of 13-year-old Ashley Wood by her then-14-year-old brother, Tanner.

In the meantime, judges in Kern, Riverside, Solano and Yolo counties have also handed down rulings and judges elsewhere are reviewing others. The Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office last week joined the list of county prosecutors opposing the new law on constitutional grounds.

Two Sacramento judges – Sacramento Juvenile Court Judge Judy Hersher and Superior Court Judge James Arguelles – sided with prosecutors in ruling 1391 unconstitutional. But a third, Sacramento Juvenile Court Judge Alyson Lewis, ruled in two cases that 1391 passes constitutional muster. Those cases are before or are headed to Sacramento’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, their contrasting rulings echoing the debate over SB 1391.

“We’ve been split on 1391 right here in Sacramento, so it’s bound for the Supreme Court,” said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who said she anticipates appellate rulings in the summer. “In the meantime, individuals and victims are being affected.”

‘Real life implications’

Schubert joined Reisig and other chief prosecutors in Sacramento last September in a public stand against SB 1391 that announced the legal fight was underway. Prosecutors called it a dangerous threat to public safety that unconstitutionally stripped away judges’ powers, blindsided voters who approved Prop. 57 and ignored families whose loved ones fell victim to violent crime.

“These families have endured immeasurable life-altering events. Ms. Clavo lost her child. Ms. Hurd lost her mom. Individuals exercised extraordinary violence for no other reason than to exercise violence,” Schubert said in an interview last week. “We exercised the law and that law has been ripped from underneath them. If you want to have a policy debate, you have to be willing to hear the facts and listen to victims. It’s a hollow conversation if it’s not about real life. There are real life implications for people on both sides.”

Chris Hartney anticipated the prosecutors’ counter-offensive.

A senior researcher at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency – an Oakland-based think tank that works to reform the juvenile justice system – Hartney has tracked juvenile justice for nearly two decades.

“The challenges we’re seeing are just what’s expected – but we’ve reached a groundswell. The reality is that the District Attorney has a job to do: to seek out recompense, to make victims whole, to not only convict but get tough sentences,” Hartney said.

But Hartney says the groundswell for criminal justice reform in California will propel future reform efforts even if SB 1391 is struck down in the state’s high court or overturned by voters.

“I’m not too worried about it,” Hartney said. “I understand the concern that just when we give judges discretion (with Proposition 57) we take it away from them. But I think there’s a movement toward a smarter approach to youth crime and criminal justice in general.”

Judges still can make a decision later to extend sentences, Hartney continued, adding that juvenile jail sentences particularly in state custody are still hard time.

“They’re tough places,” Hartney said. “The juvenile system is at least geared toward youth. Nevertheless, it’s hard. Punitive. They’re away from their communities for years.”

The Sacramento cases await decisions from the appellate court.

Clavo was fatally shot in November 2015 and another teammate was wounded in front of their Grant Union High School football teammates, blocks from their Del Paso Heights campus hours before they were to take the field for a playoff game. Police searched for the gunman for three months before arresting Lindsey, who had been in custody since shortly after the shooting on a gun charge.

Nicole Clavo offers encouragement to the Grant High football team during a remembrance for her son, Joulon Clavo, at Grant High School Monday November 16, 2015 in Sacramento, Calif. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Sacramento prosecutors initially charged Lindsey as an adult, but his case was returned to juvenile court after the passage of Prop. 57.

In January, in one of the county’s earliest tests of the new law, Sacramento Juvenile Court Judge Alyson Lewis upheld SB 1391 in ruling that Lindsey, now 18, would stand trial in juvenile court. However, the Sacramento-based 3rd District Court of Appeal put Lindsey’s trial on hold in February and is reviewing the case.

Also in February, Judge Hersher of the juvenile court denied a now 17-year-old murder defendant’s bid to be tried in juvenile court under SB 1391 for crimes charged in 2017, when he was 15 years old. Hersher rejected the new statute as unconstitutional in her 17-page opinion saying its provisions removing 14- and 15-year-old from consideration for adult court contradicted Prop. 57 and went against the will of California voters. That decision is also likely headed to the 3rd District Court of Appeal.

Judge Arguelles, in another February ruling, refused to overturn the plea deal Tanner Wood took last summer in the bludgeoning death of his sister, 13-year-old Ashley Wood, in July 2016 at the family’s Rocklin home when Tanner was 14. Under the terms of his deal, Tanner, who faced adult charges in the case, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was to be held in juvenile custody until he turned 18 before being transferred to state prison to serve the remainder of his 16 years-to-life sentence.

Attorneys for the Rocklin teen wanted the deal thrown out in light of SB 1391’s mandate, but Arguelles also declared the new law unconstitutional, bemoaning the “mental gymnastics” he said were needed to find the new law has standing and squares with the intent of Prop. 57.

Wood’s sentencing is set for April 3 in Sacramento Superior Court. His attorney, Kevin Adamson, is drafting an appeal of Arguelles’ ruling. The Sacramento juvenile attorney is also representing Lindsey, who is scheduled to return to a Sacramento courtroom April 18.

Adamson argued SB 1391 should stand because it furthers the intent of Prop. 57 – to emphasize rehabilitation over incarceration and shrink the numbers of young prisoners.

“We are sending too many kids to adult court. We need to start focusing on rehabilitation,” Adamson argued before juvenile Judge Lewis in January. “How do we do that? We send it back to juvenile court.”

Justice reform movement

California is undergoing criminal justice reform.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed moving the state’s juvenile justice system from Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation control to the Department of Health and Human Services in what would be a dramatic rethinking of how juvenile justice is addressed in the state.

Lawmakers are debating a sweeping array of proposals and new laws, from compelling police to release records, to how and when officers use deadly force. A new law governing how accomplices are tried in felony murder cases was signed last year by Gov. Brown, despite opposition from law enforcement and victim advocacy groups.

An even newer juvenile justice bill is AB 1423, carried by Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland. The bill would allow minors whose felony cases were heard in adult court and reduced to misdemeanors or dismissed to petition to have their cases returned to juvenile court.

And earlier this month, Newsom instituted a moratorium on the death penalty, calling capital punishment “ineffective, irreversible and immoral” in halting the executions of the 737 inmates on California’s death row.

The governor, days later, said he is considering barring local district attorney’s offices from seeking the death penalty. How such a plan would take shape and whether it would survive inevitable court challenges is unclear.

SB 1391 showdown

More than 100 legal scholars from universities across California – including the University of Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento; University of California, San Francisco’s Hastings College of the Law; and the law schools at Stanford and UC Berkeley – signed a February white paper calling for SB 1391 to be upheld.

The scholars asserted that “opponents of S.B. 1391 mischaracterize the law to manufacture a controversy that does not really exist,” adding that returning the age of adult prosecution to 16 furthers Prop. 57’s goals of “enhancing public safety, reducing recidivism, cutting prison spending, and rehabilitating youth in the juvenile system.”

Hurd blasted that notion, calling SB 1391 a product of “sneaky politics” that puts communities in danger and misled voters.

“The DAs are fighting it because it is unconstitutional. It is not what Californians voted for concerning juvenile offenders,” Hurd said. “SB 1391 was sneaked in the back door. It is sneaky politics. It negates Prop. 57 completely and it hits victims of atrocious crimes below the belt.”

The Davis double murder – and SB 1391 – attracted national attention in February on the CBS news magazine program “48 Hours.” Reisig, along with Hurd and Hurd’s daughter, Sarah Rice – both of whom are vocal opponents of Prop. 57 and SB 1391 – were featured. The show’s headline: “Will new law set killer free?”

Reisig believes Marsh’s attorneys could launch a new bid to have Marsh resentenced under SB 1391.

Marsh was tried and convicted as an adult in the slayings. But Marsh was ordered last year to return to Yolo County after a state appeals court ruled a local judge had to determine whether Marsh’s 52-years-to-life prison sentence should stand or whether he would be returned to juvenile court. If Marsh was sentenced in juvenile court, he could be released at 25.

Daniel Marsh enters court during during a state appellate hearing in Yolo County to determine whether his adult sentence stands or whether he should be sentenced as a juvenile offender on Monday, October 1, 2018 in Woodland. Marsh was sentenced in 2015 for the 2013 murders of an elderly Davis couple. Marsh, now 21, was 15 at the time of the killings. Hector Amezcua hamezcua@sacbee.com

Appeals judges in their February 2018 ruling insisted the local hearing mandated by Prop. 57 was a formality, but the court’s opinion angered Reisig and enraged Maupin and Northup’s families, who saw the lengthy juvenile hearing as a retrial that only dredged up the horrors visited upon the doomed couple.

Yolo Superior Court Judge Samuel T. McAdam ultimately upheld Marsh’s prison sentence last October, calling the harm caused by Marsh’s crimes “incalculable.”

“I support reform. I’m OK with the science that juveniles’ brains aren’t fully formed and that they shouldn’t necessarily be sent to prison,” Reisig said. “But when you look at terrible, violent offenses – if somebody 15 years old can be released at 25, it makes no sense to me from the standpoint of public safety.”

Reisig, one of California’s longest serving district attorneys, calls the new law “a massive overreach.”

“There will be massive consequences,” Reisig said, predicting SB 1391 will prove to be a “detrimental law for reform.”

“I’ve never opposed 57 on whether prosecutors lacked discretion – I was fine with that. Each juvenile needs to be looked at differently,” Reisig continued. “But in the most serious cases like Marsh, judges should have discretion. That’s what was sold to voters. (SB) 1391 eliminated judges’ discretion. This is not what voters were told when 57 was passed.”

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