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Life Sentence for Juvenile Affirmed, Youth Considered

Brief Synopsis: While a judge must consider a youthful offender’s immaturity and still-developing judgment, a sentence of life without the possibility of parole may still be imposed as long as the judge finds “permanent incorrigibility” and does consider the youthful factors outlined in Miller v. Alabama.           
Riley Briones, Jr., a Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian, was a founder and leader of the “Eastside Crips Rolling 30’s,” a “violent and cold-blooded” gang, which as described by the resentencing judge in this case, “terrorized the Salt River Reservation community and surrounding areas of Arizona for several years.” 

In his role, Briones participated in and helped to plan a series of violent crimes on and around the Salt River Reservation.  The most serious of these crimes was a murder committed on May 15, 1994, when Briones was seventeen year, eleven months and eight days old.  Briones and fellow gang members robbed a Subway restaurant, knowing there would be just one employee present.

Briones drove four gang members to the restaurant and parked his car outside while the other four, one of whom was armed with a gun went inside.  They first ordered sandwiches from the employee, Brian Patrick Lindsay.  While Lindsay was preparing the sandwiches, the four went back out to the car to talk to Briones.  They then returned into the store and shot Lindsay in the face, then shot him several more times while he lay on the floor.

The cash register was locked, so the robbers were only able to steal the sandwiches they ordered and a bank bag containing $100.  The four returned to the car and spoke with Briones, who said he saw a maintenance employee who may have witnesses the crime.  The four then went looking for the maintenance man to shoot him on sight, as Briones instructed, but they did not find him and left. 

Three weeks later, Briones helped plan the firebombing of a rival gang member’s home and prepared the Molotov cocktails to the used.  The gang members then used the Molotov cocktails to set fire to the house, with a family inside, including an eleven-year-old girl. 

Several months later, the gang decided to try firebombing the same house again. Briones again prepared Molotov cocktails, but this time set diversionary fires at a local kindergarten and an abandoned trailer.  They then firebombed the house again.

A month later, Briones helped plan a drive-by shooting of the same house, although he was neither the driver nor the shooter.

The next year, he was arrested after police discovered plans he devised to blow up the Salt River Police Department and kill a tribal judge, federal prosecutors and Salt River investigators.

After being arrested, with four other Eastside Crips Rolling 30’s, he was indicted on seventeen federal charges, including first degree murder on an Indian reservation (18 U.S.C. §§ 1153, 1111, 2111); four counts of arson on an Indian reservation (18 U.S.C. § 1153, 81); one count of possession of an unregistered destructive device (26 U.S.C. §§ 5861(d), 5841, 5871) and other charges.

After a jury trial, Briones was convicted of all the offenses.

At his original sentencing date, Briones continued to deny responsibility for his crimes.  On the felony murder and being the leader of a criminal gang counts, the judge imposed a then-mandatory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines sentence of life imprisonment without parole (“LWOP”).  On the other counts, the judge imposed a total of twenty years to run concurrent with his life sentence.

Fifteen years after Briones’ original sentencing, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460, 479-80 the “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders” and instead take into account how children are different and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to life in prison.

After Miller, Briones filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to vacate his original LWOP sentence and have it reconsidered at a resentencing hearing where the district court would have discretion – as required under Miller – to impose a lesser sentence if deemed appropriate in light of Briones’ youth and attendant characteristics.”  Miller, supra, at 483.  The district court granted the motion and set a resentencing hearing.

After this, but before resentencing, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) 577 U.S. 190, 206, which held Miller’s rule applied retroactively on collateral review.  In dicta, Montgomery seemed to extend Miller’s rule, suggesting LWOP is “an unconstitutional penalty . . . for juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth,” i.e., “for all but . . . those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”  Id, at 208-209.

At Briones’ resentencing, the judge found that Briones was “bright and articulate, he has improved himself while he has been in prison, but he was the leader of a gang that terrorized the Salt River Reservation and surrounding community for several years. . . The gang was violent and cold-blooded.”  The judge also considered Briones’ family situation and how Briones’ brain was affected by alcohol and drug use, but continued, “some decisions have lifelong consequences” and resentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Briones appealed the sentence, which was affirmed because the district court had carefully and fully considered Briones’ youth and immaturity at the time, as well as his regular use of alcohol and drugs at the time.

We present this summary as a reminder that being a juvenile is not a guarantee or free pass on an LWOP sentence, especially when there are multiple crimes involved, as here.

The citation for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruling discussed above is United States v. Riley Briones, Jr. (9th Cir., 2021) ___F. 5th _____.

For more information about long sentences for juvenile offenders, please click on the following articles:
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