High court cases could give hope to teenage murderers

U.S. Supreme Court rulings on mandatory life sentences for children at issue

By Gary Grado
BridgeTower Media Newswires

PHOENIX, AZ — Gregory Valencia and Joey Healer went to prison as baby-faced and scrawny teens.

As they approach 40, they’re trying to make a case for allowing them to go before a trial judge again for a new sentence that gives them a chance at walking free someday.

They contend they weren’t given the chance to prove at their sentencing in the 1990s they aren’t corrupt beyond hope and their crimes were a reflection of their youth.

The Arizona Supreme Court has agreed to consider their cases, which will affect several others like them who are behind bars for the rest of their lives for murders they committed as teenagers.

The court has scheduled oral arguments Nov. 1 at the James E. Rogers College of Law on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson.

The case comes to the Supreme Court as an appeal by the Pima County Attorney’s Office to a Court of Appeals decision granting Valencia and Healer a new sentencing.

At issue is whether U.S. Supreme Court opinions issued in 2012 and 2014 pertaining to sentencing children who commit murder have an effect on Arizona law.

The first of those rulings, Miller v. Alabama, held that a sentencing scheme with a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for a child is cruel and unusual punishment.

The second ruling, Montgomery v. Alabama, determined that Miller also applies retroactively.

Valencia and Healer and 11 others in a similar situation asked trial courts for new sentences after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Miller, saying the high court ruling changed the law in Arizona and entitles them to the new proceeding.

The trial courts rejected those requests.

The Arizona Court of Appeals overturned the trial-court rulings and ordered sentencing hearings for both men.

Healer, at age 16, killed Chester Iserman, a 74-year-old retiree, to steal his new pickup truck and $200.

Former Pima County Superior Court Judge John Leonardo, who is now the U.S. attorney for Arizona, wrote in a sentencing memo that evidence showed the 1994 killing was not impulsive, but a “calculated, cold-blooded murder.”

Valencia was convicted in the 1995 murder of Fred George, 45, a neighborhood activist, who was shot when he confronted Valencia and another teen about a bicycle theft.

Pima County Superior Court Judge Margaret Houghton said at the time of sentencing Valencia was a continuing threat to society.

“The court believes that the only way to protect the public from Gregory Valencia is through a natural life sentence,” Houghton said.

Deputy Pima County Attorney Jacob Lines wrote in a petition filed with the Arizona Supreme Court that Miller v Alabama has no effect on Arizona law because the sentences given to Valencia and Healer weren’t mandated by statute.

Lines said the judges had the option of sentencing them to natural life or life with the possibility of release after 25 years, and the judges were required by law to consider their ages.

Valencia’s attorney, Alex Heveri of the Pima County Legal Defender, wrote in his response to Lines that the trial court’s “mere mention of Valencia’s age” didn’t satisfy the requirement of Miller.

Heveri said there was no evidence presented about Valencia’s “youth or attendant circumstances.”

“But the record before the sentencing court established Mr. Valencia’s crime was committed because of his transient immaturity and an undeveloped sense of responsibility, leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk taking,” Heveri wrote.