The first resentencing under the newly enacted California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act was secured for Edel Gonzalez, who was represented pro bono by Irell & Manella and advised by the Post-Conviction Justice Project and Human Rights Watch at the USC Gould School of Law.
The new law, authored by Sen. Leland Yee (D-Calif.) and signed into law last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, allows individuals sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as juveniles to petition the court for resentencing after serving 15 years.
Gonzalez, who was sentenced to life without the possibility parole for a crime he committed at age 16, has spent 22 years in prison. On Dec. 12, his life without parole sentence was recalled by the Orange County Superior Court, which issued a new parole-eligible sentence of 25 years to life. He now has the opportunity to be considered for parole after serving 25 years and released if the parole board concludes that he no longer poses a danger to the community.
At a press conference Dec. 18, Heidi Rummel, co-director of the Post-Conviction Justice Project, said: “It is encouraging for others serving extreme adult sentences for crimes they committed as children that the court recognized his hard work in prison to rehabilitate and change the course of his life.”
Lydia Espinoza-Oregel, Gonzalez’s sister, added: “My brother has worked very hard over the past 22 years in prison to become a better person, and I am so proud of him — but our family, especially my brother, will always bear the heavy burden of the loss his actions caused.”
In 1991, while 16 years old, Gonzalez and a number of adult gang members participated in an attempted carjacking that led to the death of the driver. Although Gonzalez was not the shooter, carried no weapon during the commission of the crime, had been intoxicated, did not have a significant juvenile record and had suffered physical abuse as a child, he was given the same sentence as the shooter and sentenced to the maximum punishment allowable under the law. At that time, he was the youngest individual in Orange County’s history to receive life without parole.
Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch said Gonzalez is a changed man and deserving of a chance at parole.
“When I first spoke with Edel Gonzalez in 2007, there was no hope that he would leave prison other than in a coffin, but he was working hard everyday to become a better person because he believed it was the right thing to do. He is the kind of individual that this law was designed to benefit — he is deserving of at least the opportunity to be released one day.”
The Orange County Superior Court agreed and found Gonzalez’s institutional record “exceptional” because he had no reprimands for violence or for drug or alcohol use, which are prevalent in state prison. The court also noted that the California Youth Authority had found him amenable to change in 1997. In filings, Irell set forth evidence that Gonzalez had severed all ties to gangs both inside and outside prison, freed himself of his prior addictions, and availed himself of almost every educational and rehabilitation program offered to him in prison.
“There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not reminded of the wrong, the harm and the pain I’ve caused,” Gonzalez said at the resentencing. “If given the opportunity, I hope one day to help young kids stay away from gangs and their lies — kids that think there’s no way out, as I did in my youth. I want to share with those kids my personal experiences of this life.”
Gonzalez was represented by Marshall Camp, Bryant Yang, Zackary Davidson and Nicholas Chan of Irell & Manella. Christopher Cowan ’07, an alumnus of the Post-Conviction Justice Project, took the case to the firm as a pro bono project.