Decision in gang murder case extends teen brain development defense to 18-year-olds

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A decision issued last week by Connecticut's chief federal judge in the appeal of a former Latin Kings member who killed two people as an 18-year-old appears to extend the age of those who receive special consideration for crimes committed as juveniles.

Chief U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall on Thursday granted a habeas petition in the case of Luis Noel Cruz, now 42, who is serving four consecutive federal sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for two murders he committed in 1994.

Cruz, of Bridgeport, was 18 years and 20 weeks old when he accepted a "mission" from gang leaders to kill a suspected police informant. Cruz and another person shot and killed Arosmo "Rara" Diaz and Diaz's friend, Tyler White. White was the son of a New Haven police lieutenant, William White, who in 2008 was convicted in a corruption case and sentenced to 38 months in federal prison.

Niantic defense Attorney W. Theodore Koch III, having won the appeal, filed a motion Friday on Cruz's behalf to schedule a new sentencing hearing. Koch said in a phone interview later Friday that as soon as he learned of the decision, he drove up to the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I., where Cruz was transferred from a Florida federal prison for the habeas proceeding, to tell him the good news.

A government appeal would not likely occur until after Cruz is resentenced.

"We're reviewing the decision, and we have no further comment," said Tom Carson, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Connecticut.

Cruz had lost previous appeals, but Hall agreed to hear the case in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including Miller v. Alabama in 2012, that require judges to consider a juvenile murder defendant's youth and other mitigating factors before meting out life sentences with no hope of parole. The Miller decision applied to youths under 18.

Hall wrote in her March 29 decision that previous courts that drew the line at age 18 did not have before them the record of scientific evidence about late adolescence that is now available. At September 2017 hearings in the case, the judge heard testimony from Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University professor and renowned expert on adolescent brain development.

"I think calling professor Steinberg was really important,' Koch said. "It was his research that the U.S. Supreme Court used as the basis of their decision in Miller vs. Alabama. When I got this case, I emailed him and asked him whether his research would support protecting people over 18. He said yes. I asked him if he would take the train up (from Philadelphia) and tell Judge Hall it does, and he said yes."

Steinberg testified, in part, that adolescence lasts until the 20s and that adolescents "show problems with impulse control and self-regulation and heightened sensation- seeking, which would make them in those respects more similar to somewhat younger people than to older people."

Hall wrote that her ruling is not based on the specific facts of Cruz's case, but that Steinberg's testimony was admitted as a case study, or as one example of the trajectory of adolescent brain development.

The judge also considered whether there is a national consensus about mandatory life imprisonment for juveniles and whether there is a national consensus "where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood."

She reviewed a 2015 Sentencing Commission Report, submitted by Cruz's attorney, that indicated just one 18-year-old defendant had received a life sentence in the federal system during the past five years, demonstrating the "extreme infrequency" of such sentences.

"Thus, relying on both the scientific evidence and the societal evidence of national consensus, the court concludes that the hallmark characteristics of juveniles that make them less culpable also apply to 18-year-olds," Hall wrote. "As such, the penological rationales for imposing mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole cannot be used as justification when applied to an 18-year-old."

Koch said people from all over the country could cite the ruling in their own appeals involving juveniles and that he received emails and phone calls from lawyers in several states while the appeal was pending.

"It's not going to be a binding precedent because it's just the trial court, but it's a major breakthrough to get a judge to extend Miller to someone who's 18 years old," Koch said.

The re-sentencing hearing could take place as soon as June, according to Koch.

Cruz had joined the Latin Kings when he was just 15, according to court documents. Cruz testified during the habeas proceeding that gang leaders thought he had disrespected them when he attempted, prior to the murders, to resign from the gang. He said he believed that, if he did not carry out the mission, he himself would be killed.

Cruz has been a model prisoner, remaining discipline-free, helping with religious services and serving as a Spanish translator, Koch said. He has taken every paralegal course available, even though he had no hope of being released until now, Koch said. He has been incarcerated near Tampa, where most of his family members live.

Koch said Cruz was a small, nerdy guy with glasses when he got involved with the gang. He didn't trust anyone after his arrest, and didn't tell his lawyer the full story, which could have helped in his defense, Koch said.

"A lot of this is related to what the Supreme Court said in Miller," Koch said. "When you're a teenager, you're not able to communicate with your lawyer."

Cruz doesn't feel entirely safe from repercussions even now, Koch said, but decided to put those fears behind him and testify at his habeas hearing. A lot of people were in the courtroom, including members of Tyler White's family.

"Obviously, he and I feel nothing but sympathy for the family," Koch said.

k.florin@theday.com

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