California Court of Appeal Denies Youth Offender Parole Hearing to 21-Year-Old Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Recent Cases in Law and Neuroscience, Curated by the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior and the Shen Neurolaw Lab with support from the Dana Foundation
The California Court of Appeals affirmed Joshua Acosta’s sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and an additional term of 75 years to life for three counts of first-degree murder.
Joshua Acosta was 21 years old when he became friends with Katlynn G, a minor who told him that she wanted to run away from home or kill her stepfather because he was physically and sexually abusing her. Acosta and a close friend decided to “save” Katlynn from further abuse. They used a stolen shotgun to kill Katlynn’s parents and a family friend who happened to be staying in the house.
At trial, the defense had presented evidence that Acosta has been diagnosed with a form of high functioning autism spectrum disorder. They argued that he “functions at the social-emotional level of an 11-year-old, making him easily subject to manipulation” and that his impulsivity due to ADHD compounded his social-emotional deficiencies.
On appeal, Acosta contended that the exclusion of young adult LWOP defenders from youth offender parole hearings violated equal protection. He also argued that his LWOP sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment, and that his autism spectrum disorder mitigated his moral culpability.
The court ruled that age is a rational basis for distinguishing between juvenile and young adults sentenced to LWOP. However, the court noted that it had “some reservations about [it’s] analysis” because “the Legislature expressly recognized that cognitive brain development continues into the early 20s or later, and the parts of the brain that are still developing during this process affect judgement in ways that are highly relevant to criminal behavior.”
The court also discussed that the purpose of the statute is to allow for young offenders who committed a serious crime before they were fully mature to show they have become fit to return to society. With this public policy purpose in mind, the court stated that “arguably an LWOP offender and a non-LWOP offender are equally capable of gaining maturity, so we question whether the exclusion for young adult LWOP offenders from this process is consistent with the statute’s purpose and legislative history.”
However, the court recognized that it could not “insert [its] own policy concerns into the analysis” and rejected Acosta’s equal protection challenge. It further rejected his argument that LWOP constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment and declined to extend protections for juvenile offenders to young adults on the autism spectrum. Therefore, Acosta’s life without parole and 75-year sentences were affirmed.
Key words: California, Miller v. Alabama, young adult, LWOP, Autism spectrum disorder
This post is the 100th 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.