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Federal judge applies Supreme Court rulings to Connecticut murder case

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New Haven — Luis Noel Cruz, who has been serving four consecutive life sentences without the hope of parole for killing two men in Bridgeport in 1994 as an 18-year-old member of the Latin Kings, could be a free man in about five years.

Chief U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall, who last year granted Cruz's habeas corpus appeal in light of U.S. Supreme Court rulings pertaining to juvenile criminals and brain development, on Tuesday re-sentenced Cruz to 35 years in prison. Hall handed down the new sentence over the objection of federal prosecutors and the families of victims Arosmo "Rara" Diaz and Diaz's friend Tyler White.

Cruz, who already has served 24 years in prison — most of them at a federal facility in Florida — could be released after serving 29.75 years, which is the mandatory 85 percent of his sentence under federal law, but an appeal of Hall's precedent-setting ruling is likely.

"We appreciate Judge Hall's thorough review of this matter, but we respectfully disagree with the revised sentence and will be communicating with the Department of Justice as we consider an appeal," U.S. Attorney John H. Durham said.

Cruz was represented by Niantic attorney W. Theodore "Ted" Koch III.

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 at the time of their crimes.

But 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. 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.

Cruz was 18 years and 20 weeks old and completing a "mission" from a 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. Convicted at trial for the two murders, racketeering and drug dealing, he denied the crimes at sentencing, which still angers the victims' families.

A tiny, balding and bespectacled man in tan prison khakis, Cruz, who has been a model prisoner, offered a tearful apology Tuesday that the judge said sounded sincere based on her more than two decades of experience.

"I can confidently tell everyone here I'm definitely not that stupid and closed-minded kid who hurt so many with my actions," he said. He said he could not undo his actions, but that if given the opportunity, he'd like to help other young people before they find themselves in a situation similar to his own.

Both victims had fathered children that have grown up without them, and White family members, who filled a side of the courtroom, said they have been re-victimized by the recent court proceedings. They rejected the argument that Cruz's brain was not fully developed.

"I and the rest of my family thought Mr. Cruz would remain in prison for the rest of his life, and here I am in the same room as my brother's killer, the one who put two bullets in the back of his head," said Elizabeth White, sister of Tyler White.

Prosecutors argued for the mandatory minimum for the crimes, which is a life sentence under federal sentencing guidelines, but acknowledged the judge had the discretion to depart from the guidelines.

U.S. Attorney Patricia Stolfi Collins said Cruz had been able to graduate from a technical school, obtain a plumbing certificate and hold down a job at age 18. She said he knew what he was doing when he committed two execution-style murders and refused to give up the names of others who were involved.

"He had the wherewithal and maturity to not speak to police and to maintain his innocence," Collins said. "These are signs of someone who is making conscious or deliberate choices, just like the choices he made when he committed the murders. The family and society deserve a just punishment regardless of the Miller factor. Life (in prison) is that punishment."

Koch said he has represented three people who were granted parole as a result of the Supreme Court rulings on juveniles and that Cruz is the most mature.

"He is clearly deeply remorseful about what he did," Koch said. "People who get arrested for misdemeanors and felonies get out. They never have to feel the full fire of correction. Mr. Cruz did and he's had to make this alchemical transformation of his own soul while he's been locked up."

Koch called as a witness New London forensic social worker Jozlyn Hall, of no relation to the judge, who had interviewed Cruz and issued a written report indicating he is not likely to re-offend. Prosecutors rejected the report and the idea that Cruz should walk free, but Koch said they were unable to contest the science that has found the brain is still developing into the early 20s and that the juvenile brain is highly susceptible to peer pressure and impulsivity.

Judge Hall cited case law and comparative re-sentencings of juvenile killers as a result of the Supreme Court's rulings, which ranged from 20 to 35 years. She said every case is different.

"Yes, he acted intentionally," she said of Cruz. "He did mean to murder two people that night, but that doesn't address his abilities in the psychological sense, the brain development sense, to make a judgment."

The judge thanked the White family for their presentation of photos showing Tyler White throughout his short life and said that nothing she could say would ease their suffering.

The judge said she can't ignore the 24 years of Cruz's life that have occurred since the crimes and the decision in Miller v. Alabama, and that she must consider his age at the time as a factor in handing down the new sentence.

k.florin@theday.com

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