25-Year Sentence Affirmed for Defendant Age 16 At the Time of His Offense

Above: Defendant Felix Rivera — Image Source: NJ.com

On December 17, 2020, a New Jersey state appellate court affirmed the decision to waive Felix Rivera, who was 16 years old at the time of his offense, to adult court. The court also affirmed Rivera’s 25-year sentence.

Oscar Martinez Alvarez was shot and killed in a gang-related homicide on April 21, 2015. The investigation of the homicide revealed Felix Rivera to be the shooter, which several individuals associated with the gang, Mara Salvatrucha (known as MS-13), confirmed.

The state filed a juvenile delinquency complaint against Rivera and filed a motion to waive him to adult court. Before the waiver hearing, Rivera submitted a biopsychosocial assessment performed by a social worker. The assessment said that Rivera, who entered the United States from El Salvador in 2013 and does not speak English, was associated with MS-13 but was not a member. He smoked marijuana daily but did not use other drugs, had good grades, and had good behavior at his juvenile detention center. The assessment concluded that when determining whether Rivera should be tried as an adult, several factors should be considered, including his “lack of maturity due to incomplete frontal lobe brain development[,]” his loss of family and need to maintain a low profile when he entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant, being surrounded by gang violence, and exhibiting academic potential despite receiving a subpar education. Finally, the social worker opined that Rivera’s “capacity to control impulses, ability to think of the consequences of his behavior, and skills in communicating effectively [were] not yet fully developed” at the time of the crime.

The state contended that the details contained in the biopsychosocial report did not “rise to the level of a ‘mental health concern.’” The court agreed and granted the state’s motion to waive Rivera to adult court. Rivera was then charged with first-degree murder. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years. Rivera later appealed.

Rivera first appealed the decision to move his case to adult court. In New Jersey, the state can seek a waiver for any offender aged 15 or older who committed certain severe offenses. Rivera was 16 years old at the time of the offense, which qualified as a severe offense, and therefore was eligible to be charged in adult court. The appeals court affirmed the decision to waive Rivera to adult court. Regarding the concerns over Rivera’s age and mental health, the appeals court noted that “the biopsychosocial assessment did not diagnose defendant as suffering from any thought or mood disorders” and that “it did not conclude that his criminal acts were caused by the biopsychosocial factors that it enumerated.”

Rivera also asserted that he was entitled to resentencing because the sentencing court did not analyze his youth as a mitigating factor. The appeals court found that his 25-year sentence was not a life sentence, and therefore the mitigating factors of youth outlined in Miller v. Alabama, prohibiting mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles, did not apply to his case. Thus, Rivera was not entitled to resentencing under Miller.

Key words: adolescent brain, Miller v. Alabama, gang violence, New Jersey

Citation: State v. Rivera, 2020 WL 7392978

This post is the 55th post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.

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at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

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Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

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