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East Lyme lawyer represents man granted early release from prison through First Step Act

Luis Noel Cruz was just 18 when he was ordered by members of the Latin Kings gang to kill two men in Bridgeport in 1994. For nearly 30 years, he has sat in prison serving four consecutive life sentences for his crimes without possibility of parole.

But on Monday, Cruz left prison a free man after being granted a reduced sentence by way of the First Step Act.

"It was like when you finally wake up from a very bad nightmare that seems real and have that sense of relief that it was only a dream," he said Thursday from his mother’s home in Florida. After spending more than 60% of his life in prison, the 45-year-old said the feeling of walking free was “indescribable.”

Cruz, who while in prison studied to become a paralegal, led a “Fathers Behind Bars” course and volunteered as a translator for religious services, said he hopes his case serves as proof that people can change.

“I will never excuse what I did, I was wrong and I will for the rest of my life regret,” he said. ”But we also have to understand that we have all made mistakes. I want people to understand that there's no excuse for crime, but a lot of people who do commit crimes do change and change for the better.”

Cruz, who had been serving his time in a low-security prison in Sumterville, Fla., has been represented by Niantic defense attorney W. Theodore Koch III since Koch was assigned to the case in 2013. Koch argued for a “compassionate release” for Cruz through the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice bill passed by Congress in 2018 meant to reduce unnecessarily long sentences and rates of recidivism, or the likelihood of a person offending again after release from the prison system.

U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall on April 9 ruled to reduce Cruz’s sentence after considering several factors that made him eligible, indulging his age at the time of the crimes, his “unusually long” sentence, his “remarkable” prison record and reform, his remorse for the crimes, health conditions that put him at high risk for COVID-19 and his mother’s terminal illness.

Hall ruled that Cruz’s sentence should be reduced to the time he has served — 30 years with credit for good behavior — with five years of supervised release.

Cruz had joined the Latin Kings when he was just 15, according to court documents, and 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 New Haven police Lt. William White, who in 2008 was convicted in a corruption case and sentenced to 38 months in federal prison. Cruz said he believed that if he did not carry out the mission, he himself would be killed.

Cruz at first denied involvement in the crime and his gang affiliation but since has taken responsibility for his actions.

In her ruling, Hall said Cruz “expressed deep remorse” and demonstrated “that he understands the devastating irrevocable impact" his actions have had on the victims’ families.

“The victims’ family is always at the forefront of my mind, and how much pain I caused them,” Cruz said Thursday. “I know ‘sorry’ is never going to be enough but I don’t know any other word to convey to people how sorry I am for my stupid actions.”

He said that at the time of the murders, he was swept up in a world of violence and didn’t see a way out. He previously testified in court that he had tried to leave the Latin Kings but that attempt was seen as a form of disrespect toward the gang.

By 18, Cruz already had been shot multiple times, and he had seen people shot to death before he even hit his teenage years. He said he didn’t see any way for his life to be different.

“I never thought that I was going to make it to 21, so why think about the future when I thought, ‘You’re never going to make it out of here alive?’” he said this week. “And I’m not talking about prison, I didn’t think I was going to make it out of the neighborhood alive.”

Koch argued that because Cruz was just over the cusp of 18 when he committed a crime ordered by elder gang members, his age should be taken into account when reconsidering his life sentence. He argued that research shows his client was at an age when his brain was not yet fully developed when he committed the murders.

“When you’re 18, 19, 20 you’re still the same as someone who is 16, 17 in terms of neurobiology,” Koch said.

Koch pursued a compassionate release “because of the science, because of how young he was, and because he’s a great guy who's reformed and rehabilitated and feels very sorry for what he did and has told the victims' families that.”

Judge Hall previously had ruled to reduce Cruz’s sentence, but her decision was overturned by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Hall had erred in her decision based on the Miller v. Alabama U.S. Supreme Court ruling that applies to youths under 18 at the time of their crimes.

The Miller ruling, 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.

At September 2017 hearings in the case, Hall heard testimony from Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University professor and renowned expert on adolescent brain development whom Koch has consulted in Cruz’s case.

Steinberg said Thursday that his research shows that adolescence extends to anyone under the age of 21. He has testified 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 in a prior 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.

She said in her ruling this month that 18-year-olds "are still developing in terms of maturity, impulse control, ability to resist peer pressure, and character” and therefore cannot be held fully blameworthy for criminal conduct.

Koch said he and Cruz had maintained hope that he might be released early through all the ups and downs in his case. “There was still hope, but it was only hope,” Koch said, “until Monday morning, when they put him in an Uber.”

Cruz, upon release, went to his mother’s house in Florida not far from where he was serving his time. He said he is “elated” to be free but doesn’t think the reality has hit him yet, “because it is so unreal.”

He is looking forward to being reunited with his 28-year-old son, who was less than a year old when Cruz was incarcerated, and getting to know his many nieces and nephews after his court-ordered quarantine. He will be a full-time caretaker for his mother.

While he was in prison, Cruz said he would check in on his mother — who has been living alone throughout the coronavirus pandemic — every day. But he felt helpless when their calls ended and she was all alone.

Now, he stays by her side day and night and is so grateful that he can help her and be there to take care of whatever she needs.

Cruz also hopes to pursue a career as a paralegal. He said he hopes to help people, especially people in positions of authority, understand that people can change.

Koch said that Cruz had been a model prisoner and Hall said he had “transformed” his life during his years in prison.

The attorney said he was “ecstatic” about his client’s early release and hopes the case is used as reference for other individuals who are penalized for life for crimes committed when they were teenagers.

Cruz "is living proof that the science is correct that no matter how horrible what somebody did when they were a teen was, they do have the capacity to recognize that and change themselves for the better,” Koch said.

t.hartz@theday.com

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