Nov. 2, 2015 – Two men who were sentenced to life in prison after committing crimes as juveniles recently lost an appeal for new sentences, despite their argument that a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibits mandatory life sentences against juveniles.
Emmanuel Martinez and Timothy Vallejo were members of the Latin Kings gang in Milwaukee when sentenced to life for violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). They admitted to committing organized crimes for the gang, including murder and attempted murder, when they were ages 16 and 17.
Their plea agreements noted that they could face life imprisonment, but the district court had the discretion to impose lower sentences in line with sentencing guidelines.
The government asked for a prison sentence around 30 years. However, the district judge imposed the maximum sentence against both of them, noting the heinous 2003 murder they committed against one Milwaukee man, and other aggravating factors.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), which held that mandatory life prison sentences against juveniles violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment per the Eighth Amendment.
Under Miller, Martinez and Vallejo petitioned the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, asking that their sentences be vacated and corrected. The district judge denied that request, noting that their life sentences were not mandatory.
In Vallejo v. U.S., Nos. 14-2737 & 14-2818 (Oct. 16, 2015), a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court, concluding that RICO does not impose a mandatory life sentence in violation of the Miller decision.
Vallejo and Martinez argued that the applicable RICO provision, 18 U.S.C. § 1963(a), mandates a life sentence if a predicate racketeering act carries a maximum life sentence. But the appeals panel noted legislative history to reject that argument:
“If we were to set aside this legislative history and adopt Martinez and Vellejo’s interpretation, we would require courts to impose a sentence of life in prison under § 1963 whenever the predicate offense carries a life sentence as an option.
“This interpretation would conflict not only with settled sentencing practices, but also with the spirit of Miller and other Supreme Court decisions that have moved away from mandatory sentencing to allow courts the flexibility to ‘tailor the sentence in light of other statutory concerns,” the panel wrote in its decision, affirming the lower court.