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Court affirms JLWOP inmate’s 50-year resentencing

Jessica Shumaker//December 18, 2020

Court affirms JLWOP inmate’s 50-year resentencing

Jessica Shumaker//December 18, 2020

A federal appeals court has affirmed the resentencing of a man convicted in 2008 of murdering a woman and her son when he was a teenager, ruling that the new, 50-year sentence isn’t substantively unreasonable.

On Dec. 11, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the resentencing of Leobardo B. Barraza, who was convicted in 2008 of kidnapping and murdering Maria Eloiza and her 5-year-old son in 1998 in  Franklin County. He was 16 at the time.

In 2008, U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. sentenced Barraza to the statutorily mandated term of life in prison without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court later held that mandatory life without parole was unconstitutional in its 2012 ruling Miller v. Alabama.

Following Miller, Limbaugh ordered that Barraza be resentenced. After he resentenced Barraza to 50 years in prison, Barraza appealed. He challenged Limbaugh’s use of a sentencing guideline, arguing that it failed to contemplate Miller. He also argued the sentence was substantively unreasonable.

Writing for the panel, Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith said the U.S. Supreme Court found in Miller that the 8th Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme mandating life in prison without opportunity for parole for juvenile offenders.

The 8th Circuit has previously declined to address, however, whether Miller applies to a discretionary life sentence, Smith said.

While the Supreme Court in Miller did not explicitly bar discretionary decisions to impose life sentences on juveniles, the court determined that a sentencing court must make an individualized sentencing decision taking into account “the distinctive attributes of youth” before imposing a sentence of life without parole, Smith said.

The panel concluded Limbaugh properly weighed those attributes.

“The court expressly acknowledged that Barraza committed the offense at age 16,” Smith said. “The court, however, relied on the specific facts of the case, including the theory that Barraza’s older friend coerced him. It imposed the 50-year sentence ‘in view of the evidence that was presented at trial.’”

Barraza also argued his new sentence was substantively unreasonable because it was longer than sentences imposed in similar and more egregious juvenile murders.

But Smith said Barraza’s 50-year sentence is a below-guidelines sentence, which is considered presumptively reasonable on appeal, and that Barraza failed to overcome that presumption.

Pointing to earlier discussion that Limbaugh properly weighed factors surrounding Barraza’s youth, Smith said Limbaugh “found that the ‘kidnapping and murder of the adult female victim’ was ‘premeditated’ ‘in view of the evidence that was presented at trial.’”

“[Limbaugh] distinguished Barraza’s case from other juvenile resentencing cases based on the trial evidence, despite Barraza’s attempts to argue he was coerced into helping his friend,” Smith said. “Therefore, we hold that Barraza’s 50-year sentence is substantively reasonable.”

Judges Duane Benton and Jonathan A. Kobes agreed.

Assistant Federal Public Defender Kevin C. Curran represented Barraza. Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Angie E. Danis represented the federal government. Both attorneys declined to comment.

The case is U.S. v. Barraza, 19-2718.

RELATED: 8th Circuit considering court-ordered JLWOP reforms

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