A teen who murdered a Rapid City store clerk having to wait until he's 62 for the chance of parole is unconstitutional since there's no meaningful opportunity for release, his lawyer argued before the South Dakota Supreme Court Tuesday.
The teen's sentence is backed up by the state and U.S. Supreme Courts, the assistant attorney general responded, adding that the Pennington County judge carefully considered various factors before handing down the punishment.
The court heard those arguments Tuesday morning in the case of State of South Dakota v. Carlos Quevedo at the University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion, and were listened to by the Journal through an online audio feed.
Quevedo was 17 when he stabbed Kasie Lord, a 45-year-old store clerk, during a 2017 beer theft at the Loaf 'N Jug on Mount Rushmore Road. He said he couldn’t remember the attack, having blacked out after ingesting a mixture of vodka, marijuana, cough tablets and soda laced with cough syrup.
Quevedo pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and Judge Heidi Linngren sentenced him to 90 years in prison, which will make him eligible for parole after 45 years when he is 62. Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo had asked for a 100-year sentence while Quevedo's defense lawyer asked for one between 40-45 years.
Adults convicted in South Dakota state court are automatically sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole, a punishment that is unconstitutional when applied to minors, even those charged as adults, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama.
Quevedo and other South Dakota minors convicted of the most serious crimes can now be punished by a term of years, meaning any sentence as long as there's a chance of parole. The state Supreme Court has upheld a sentence as long as 261 years for a 16-year-old who helped kidnap a taxi driver since he has the chance of parole.
But Paul Eisenbraun, a Rapid City-based lawyer representing Quevedo, said he wants the court to expand the Miller ruling and for South Dakota to join other states in reforming juvenile sentencing.
"This is a very, very sad case," Eisenbraun said in reference to the murder and his client's upbringing. Eisenbraun said Quevedo's parents used hard drugs, were physically abusive, and were in and out of prison. Quevedo successfully attended an out-of-state high school but returned to Rapid City where he sought "out the same habits he saw his parents do."
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On Jan. 18, 2017, Quevedo and his friends went on a "spree all night long," getting high on drugs and alcohol before deciding to steel beer from the Loaf 'N Jug, Eisenbraun said.
"The facts are ugly in this case," Eisenbraun said, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that minors must have a meaningful chance for release based on rehabilitation. While the high court allows minors to be sentenced to life without parole, other states are realizing that a meaningful chance means shorter sentences are needed.
Eisenbraun pointed to State v. Null, when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that releasing a juvenile when he is "geriatric" violates U.S. Supreme Court rulings. And in Bear Cloud v. State, the Wyoming Supreme Court said a minor having the chance of parole at 61 is a de facto sentence of life without parole.
Ann Meyer, assistant attorney general, admitted that other states have reformed juvenile sentencing but said "the gold standard right now is Miller" and asked the court to focus on its own precedent.
"Time after time this court has said that a term of years sentence is not a die-in-prison sentence" and the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected appeals to hear South Dakota lawyers arguing otherwise, she said.
Meyer also said that Linngren was very "careful and comprehensive" in sentencing Quevedo, that she considered the crime, his upbringing, the fact that he pleaded guilty, public safety and the chance of rehabilitation. She said an expert testified during the seven-hour hearing that Quevedo had no psychological or developmental conditions, and may or not be able to change.
In the future, Meyer said, it may be worth reviewing whether it's constitutional to sentence South Dakota minors to prison for so long that they would die before being eligible for parole. This could come up if a minor is sentenced for multiple felonies and is a scenario not yet considered by the state and federal supreme courts, she said. But that's not what this case is about since Quevedo has a "light at the end of the tunnel."
"Now it's up to him" to see if he can reform and be released when he's 62, Meyer said.
It's unclear when the Supreme Court will make a decision on the case.