California Appellate Court Affirms LWOP Sentence for 19-Year-Old

Above: California Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit — Image Source: California Courts

In an unpublished opinion issued on December 15, 2020, a California Court of Appeals affirmed a sentence of 129 years to life, without the possibility of parole, for defendant Murrel Wayne Vailes III, who was 19 years old at the time of his offenses.

Though Vailes did not physically harm anyone at any point during the offenses, he was sentenced to a de facto LWOP sentence in 2019 for robbery offenses he committed in 2017. He was sentenced under California’s “three strikes” sentencing law, which allows lengthier sentences because of repeat offenses.

Vailes argued on appeal that he should be a candidate for the parole eligibility that is available to juvenile offenders pursuant to section 3501 of the California Penal Code because, among other arguments, precluding him from that parole eligibility assertedly violated Equal Protection. Section 3501 of the California Penal Code “provides all juvenile offenders with a parole hearing during or before their 25th year of incarceration.” Because Vailes had not physically harmed or killed any of the victims of his crimes, he argued that “there is no rational explanation to give one who commits murder the benefit of section 3051, but deprive that benefit to a less culpable offender.”

Vailes also argued that “[a]n offender’s criminal history in no way impacts the inherent disabilities of youth, i.e., impulsivity and the lack of brain maturity, and courts have determined that a sentence that equates to life with no possibility of parole should only extend to those youthful offenders who clearly demonstrate ‘irreparable corruption.’”

The court rejected Valies’ constitutional challenges and affirmed the judgement of the trial court. Because Vailes was sentenced under the Three Strikes law, “Under the version of section 3051 applicable when he committed the offenses, Vailes’ sentence makes him statutorily ineligible for a youth offender parole hearing.” The court also noted that because Vailes was 19 at the time of the offenses, he was not a juvenile and therefore section 3501 does not apply to him.

Key words: California, LWOP, three strikes law, adolescent brain, young adult, Miller v. Alabama

Citation: People v. Vailes, 2020 WL 7349482

This post is the 34th 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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