Life Without Parole Sentence Affirmed for Defendant Age 18 at the Time of His Offense

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

California Second District Court of Appeal, Los Angeles, CA. (ballotpedia.org)

On January 29, 2021, an appellate court in Los Angeles, California affirmed Antoine Bellows’ life without parole sentence. The court held that Bellows, 18 years old at the time of his offense, was not entitled to a juvenile offender parole hearing during his 25th year of incarceration because he had committed his offense months after his 18th birthday. The court noted that although the Supreme Court “has acknowledged that ‘[t]he qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18,’” “a line must be drawn” at some point to avoid an endless influx of similar arguments an exception would invite.

On December 17, 2014, Bellows and an accomplice approached Jesus Vasquez in front of a neighborhood store. Bellows attempted to rob Vasquez at gunpoint. A struggle ensued between the two at which point two bystanders rushed to Vasquez’s aid. Bellows, Vasquez, and one of the bystanders were struggling for control of the gun when it discharged, killing Vasquez with a single gunshot wound to the head. Several weeks later, Antione Bellows was identified by a local gang member as Vasquez’ killer during an interrogation.

A jury convicted Bellows of first-degree murder and unlawful possession of a firearm. He consequently received two consecutive sentences of life without the possibility of parole, followed by a 25-year determinate sentence.

On appeal, the defendant argued that his sentence violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection provisions, contending that it precluded him from an early parole consideration extended to juvenile offenders. Citing Miller v. Alabama, the defendant argued that he was only four months beyond the age of 18 during the commission of the crime and therefore should be entitled to the same protections as those under age 18. The defendant underscored his diminished ability to appreciate the risk and consequences of his actions, dysfunctional executive functioning, ADHD, and the use of drugs and alcohol at the time of the murder as mitigating factors of his offense.

The court acknowledged the “stiff” nature of the sentence given the defendant’s age, but ultimately stated that the defendant’s culpability was determined by a host of factors including his “age, prior criminality, personal characteristics, and state of mind.” As such, his sentence was commensurate with the offense and the defendant’s equal protection challenge was unfounded.

Citation: People v. Bellows, 2021 WL 302558 (link)

Keywords: ADHD, Eighth Amendment, LWOP, Miller v. Alabama, Roper v. Simmons, young adult

This post is the 91st 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.

at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School