Two teen-age killers considered too dangerous ever to let out of prison will now get a chance to be released — someday.
The state Court of Appeals said Monday that a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court says life sentences can be imposed only on “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” And Judge Philip Espinosa, writing for the unanimous court, pointed out the justices said their ruling is retroactive, meaning it applies to prior sentences.
But the ruling does not guarantee either Joey Lee Healer or Gregory Valencia Jr., both now behind bars for two decades, will escape their life prison terms. Instead, it gives their attorneys a chance to argue to judges that they should be able to get out — eventually.
Healer, at age 16, killed Chester Iserman, a retired railroad worker so he could steal his pickup truck.
In imposing the life term, Pima County Superior Court Judge John Leonardo said he considered Healer too dangerous to ever be released.
“It’s not easy to accept that one so young poses a threat to society,” the judge wrote. But Leonardo said the evidence showed the 1994 slaying was not impulsive but the “calculated, cold-blooded murder” of the 74-year-old victim who treated Healer kindly by paying him money to run errands.
In the other case, Valencia was convicted of the 1995 killing of 45-year-old Fred George, a southside neighborhood activist.
Prosecutors said Valencia shot George after the victim confronted the teen outside his Midvale Park condominium. George had said he was going to call police about a bicycle Valencia and another teen had stolen when Valencia shot George once behind the left ear.
“The defendant is a continuing threat to the community,” said Pima County Superior Court Judge Margaret Houghton. “The court believes that the only way to protect the public from Gregory Valencia is through a natural life sentence.”
Prosecutors had argued to the appellate court that the Supreme Court ruling should not entitle the pair to resentencing because their life sentences were not mandatory.
But Espinosa said the high court ruling “renders a life sentence constitutionally impermissible, notwithstanding the sentencing court’s decision to impose a lesser term, unless the court takes into account how children are different and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” And he said that, even after taking those factors into account, a court can impose a life term “only if it concludes that the juvenile defendant’s crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”