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Connecticut's top federal judge overturned on juvenile murder ruling

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals last month overturned a decision by Connecticut's top federal judge, Janet C. Hall, to reduce the life sentence of 44-year-old convicted murderer Luis Noel Cruz to 33 years in light of U.S. Supreme Court rulings pertaining to juvenile criminals and brain development.

Circuit Judges Ralph K. Winter, Reena Raggi and Denny Chin issued a ruling on Sept. 11 indicating that Hall had erred in her decision, since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama applies to youths under 18 at the time of their crimes.

Cruz was 18 years and 20 weeks old when he was involved in the 1994 gang-related murders in Bridgeport of Arosmo "Rara" Diaz and Tyler White. Court records indicate Cruz was completing a "mission" from a Latin Kings gang leader when he shot Tyler White in the back of the head in a car, chased Diaz and held him down while another gang member killed him.

The Miller decision, issued in 2012, held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for those under 18 at the time of their crime constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Niantic attorney W. Theodore "Ted" Koch III had represented Cruz, who is serving four consecutive life sentences in a low-security prison in Sumterville, Fla., in a successful habeas corpus appeal based on scientific findings that the brain is still developing into the early 20s and that the juvenile brain is highly susceptible to peer pressure and impulsivity.

At September 2017 hearings in the case, Hall, Connecticut's chief U.S. district judge, heard testimony from Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University professor and renowned expert on adolescent brain development.

Hall wrote in her March 2018 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. Hall resentenced Cruz to 35 years in prison, giving him hope that he would be freed in about five years.

The families of Cruz's victims had objected to a sentence reduction, and had argued that Cruz had made conscious and deliberate choices when he committed the murders.

U.S. District Attorney John Durham had said immediately following Cruz's resentencing in February 2019 that his office would appeal. Assistant U.S. Attorneys John T. Pierpont Jr., Patricia Stolfi Collins and Sandra S. Glover worked on the appeal.

Koch worked with attorney Tadhg Dooley of the Wiggin and Dana law firm of New Haven on behalf of Cruz, and the appeal was argued earlier this year during a hearing that was conducted remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Second Circuit court wrote in its decision that the Supreme Court had "explicitly limited its holding in Miller to defendants under the age of 18," and that earlier decisions drew a categorical line at age 18 between adults and juveniles. In a footnote, the court wrote that every circuit court to consider the issue has refused to extend the Miller decision to defendants who were 18 or older at the time of their offenses.

Prior to the Cruz case, the Second Circuit court decided another case. United States vs. Sierra, which involved gang members from the Bronx who were between 18 and 22 years old when they committed murder.

Even though the facts of the case and defendants' records were different, "It was sort of like, we already decided this, and you lose, too," Koch said by phone Friday.

Koch said he would continue to pursue an earlier freedom of Cruz, who he says is a model prisoner. The next step is to file a motion for "en banc review" so that the entire Second Circuit court reviews the case.

"If they say no, we'll file a petition with the entire (U.S.) Supreme Court," he said.

k.florin@theday.com

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