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Political lines drawn on life sentences for teen killers

September 21, 2012 |  4:24 pm

Jose Vasquez holds daughter Angie, 3, as he sits with brother Raymond Vasquez. at the grave of their sister Tayde Vasquez. Tayde was shot to death 20 years ago, when she was 13. The killer's accomplice, 16-year-old Elizabeth Lozano, was sentenced to life without parole. Political lines are being drawn on life sentences for teen killers. Political pressure on Gov. Jerry Brown to make a decision on California's sentencing laws for teen killers is mounting.

Brown has until the end of the month to sign or veto SB 9, Sen. Leland Yee's bill to allow the possibility of parole after 25 years for juveniles currently sentenced to life without parole. Most if not all of the cases involve murder, but those serving the sentence include both killers and accomplices. The bill excludes those who torture their victims or kill law enforcement officers and requires those seeking parole to have had no serious violations for five years.

Support for the bill comes from both sides of the aisle. Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi and former Republican House leader Newt Gingrich urge Brown to sign the bill. In an editorial appearing Thursday in the San Diego U-T, Gingrich called California's life without parole sentences an "overuse of incarceration. It denies the reality that young people often change for the better."

In a letter to the governor, Pelosi contended that "civilized societies are increasingly prohibiting life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, recognizing that juveniles do not possess the same mental development as adults.”

Brown is hearing plenty from the other side as well. California Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway earlier this month sent the governor a letter seeking veto of the "unnecessary" bill. "California already has a carefully balanced statutory scheme that appropriately balances the need to hold the most serious juvenile murderers accountable for their crimes, while recognizing different levels of maturity and culpability based on the age of the offender, and retains judicial discretion," she wrote.

Indeed, some victim advocates contend that because judges already rejected the possibility of allowing eventual parole for the state's 309 inmates sentenced as minors, there is no reason to revisit the issue. They have political support from lobbyists for prison guards and prosecutors.

The battle lines are not universally inclusive. Mothers Against Murder, for instance, has refused to take an official stance on the bill even though its membership includes families of those killed by juveniles. "We tend not to take a stand due to our respect for different families' wishes," said Executive Director Margaret Petros.

"You would be surprised how many mothers want to forgive the criminals to make peace and deal with the tremendous pain they go through. It is different for some, though, who want to see the case go to death row," Petros said. "Sometimes, different family members feel differently. My work and MAM's philosophy is to unconditionally accept/respect all the different wishes of family members."

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-- Paige St. John

Photo: Jose Vasquez holds daughter Angie, 3, as he sits with brother Raymond Vasquez at the grave of their sister Tayde Vasquez. Tayde was shot to death 20 years ago, when she was 13. The killer's accomplice, 16-year-old Elizabeth Lozano, was sentenced to life without parole. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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