It is unfortunately not well understood that if one is 18 or over when one commits a crime punishable by a sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), that person is ineligible for a youth offender parole hearing. However, if one is one day under 18 when one commits a crime punishable by LWOP, that person is eligible for a youth offender parole hearing.
This sad reality is something our office has regularly had to explain because within the context of a Franklin Hearing (People v. Franklin (2016) 63 Cal.4th 261) to preserve evidence of mitigating evidence for a youth offender hearing, we often have clients sentenced to LWOP for a crime committed when he or she was 18 or older.
When the client falls into this category, we must advise the client that he or she is ineligible for a Franklin Hearing, but he or she may file a motion under Penal Code § 1203.01 (and request the trial court exercise its power under Code of Civil Procedure § 187) for the purpose of making a record of mitigating and youth-related evidence. In re Cook (2019) 7 Cal.5th 439, at 446-447 (Cook was a habeas case, but the court there recommended 1203.01 as an alternative).
The age 18 dividing line, however, remains a seemingly arbitrary dividing line, some may say.
Joshua Acosta certainly thought this was so. When he was 21 years old, he and his friend Frank Felix, age 25, plotted to kill the parents of their friend, Katlynn G., a juvenile age 17, – and then did so.
Mr. Acosta, Mr. Felix and Katlynn G. met through the “furry community,” a worldwide group of cartoon enthusiasts who liked to dress up like animals. Mr. Acosta and Katlynn G. were at times sexually involved.
Katlynn lived in Fullerton with her mother and stepfather and two younger half-sisters, ages 6 and 9. Katlynn confided to Acosta and Felix that she wanted to run away from home because her stepfather was physically and sexually abusing her. She also talked about killing him.
Acosta and Felix decided they had to “save” Katlynn and her sisters from further abuse. They came up with a plan to murder Katlynn’s parents using a shotgun and then to help Katlynn hide until she turned 18 and could live with Felix.
Acosta then went to Katlynn’s house and found Katlynn’s parents were there and had a friend named Billy spending the night. Acosta decided to kill the friend to keep him “quiet.” Katlynn secretly loaded her belongings into Felix’s truck. Felix then when in the house and shot Billy in the back of the head while he was sleeping. He then shot Katlynn’s mom in the face and shot the stepfather as he was trying to flee.
The next morning, police arrived and Acosta was arrested shortly thereafter.
At trial, a jury found Acosta guilty of special circumstance first degree murder (Penal Code §§ 187(a), 190.2(a)(3)) and found true the sentencing enhancement that he personally discharged a firearm causing death to each victim (Penal Code § 12022.53(d)). The trial court sentenced Acosta to three consecutive LWOP terms for the special circumstance murders (he was eligible for the death penalty, but avoided this), plus 75 years for the firearm enhancements.
It merits mention that Penal Code § 190.2(a)(3) provides: “The penalty for a defendant who is found guilty of murder in the first degree is death or imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole if . . . defendant . . . in this proceeding . . . has been convicted of more than one offense of murder in the first or second degree.”
Acosta appealed, arguing that his LWOP sentence must be modified to allow for future parole consideration. He observed that Penal Code § 3051 affords a youth offender parole hearing to offenders sentenced to determinate or life sentences (no matter how lengthy) for crimes committed when they were 25 or younger (§ 3051(b)(1) – (3)) and to offenders sentenced to LWOP for crimes committed before they turned 18 (id., subd. (b)(4)), but expressly excludes offenders, like Acosta, who were sentenced to LWOP for crimes committed when they were ages 18 to 25 (id., subd. (h)).
According to Acosta, that statutory exclusion precluding young adult LWOP offenders from the right to a youth offender parole hearing violates equal protection as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. He further contends his LWOP sentence is cruel and unusual punishment.
The Fourth Appellate District denied his appeal, noting that equal protection of the law is denied only when there is no “rational relationship between the disparity of treatment and some legitimate governmental purpose.” People v. Edwards (2019) 34 Cal.App.5th 183, 195.
Here, there was a rational basis for distinguishing between juvenile LWOP offenders and young adult LWOP offenders: age difference and premature brain development. Moreover, there is a rational basis for distinguishing between a young adult LWOP offender and a young adult offender serving a non-LWOP sentence: the severity of the crime. A special circumstance multiple murder carries the harshest penalties under the penal system, a mandatory sentence of LWOP or death, which are reserved for the most heinous crimes. Thus, the statute did not on its face violate equal protection.
Moreover, the panel explained that Acosta intentionally executed three people and therefore, the Eighth Amendment did not prohibit a triple LWOP sentence here. If the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit death for a 21-year-old, it does not prohibit the lesser LWOP sentence.