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Damon Peterson shot and killed a German visitor outside a Homestead motel, part of a spate of highly publicized tourist robberies that shook South Florida tourism in the early 1990s.
Peterson was just 16 years old. He pleaded guilty and got life in prison, with a chance for parole after 25 years.
Decades later, Peterson found hope when the Florida Supreme Court in 2016 — on the heels of widespread legal reforms of juvenile sentencing laws — ruled that the state’s antiquated parole system did not offer hundreds of people convicted of murder as youths a meaningful chance at redemption. Prosecutors agreed Peterson, now 42, should get a chance to convince a judge that his tormented childhood and clean prison record make him an ideal candidate for release.
“This is somebody that’s done everything asked of him as an inmate,” his lawyer, Daniel Tibbitt, told a Miami-Dade judge at a recent hearing. “He has been involved in every program. In 25 years, in the most violent prisons in our state, he’s never been involved in a violent incident. His disciplinary record is spectacular. This is someone who really could live a life outside the walls of prison.”
But the Florida Supreme Court, in recent months, has done an about-face and ruled that juveniles such as Peterson sent to prison for life are no longer eligible for new sentencing hearings. Citing the recent case law, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Veronica Diaz late last month canceled Peterson’s long-scheduled sentencing hearing.
For prosecutors, the Supreme Court’s rulings are a welcome reversal, allowing them to keep killers behind bars, while sparing the state from re-litigating decades-old cases faded by time, their files incomplete, the detectives retired, witnesses long dead. For relatives, the backtrack spares them the trauma of testimony and re-living evidence of their loved one’s violent demise.
For defendants like Peterson — juveniles sent to prison for life in the years before Florida abolished parole — the decisions were a stunning blow, especially because dozens of others with similar stories have convinced prosecutors or judges that they deserve a chance at redemption.
Peterson is not alone. Dozens of defendants in Miami-Dade who might have had a chance at getting a re-sentencing hearing just a few months ago have now had the door shut. The legal battles over the decisions will likely continue for months.
Roseanne Eckert, of Florida International University’s Florida Juvenile Resentencing and Review Project, called the recent state Supreme Court decision “disingenuous,” a slap in the face of legal precedent set just two years ago.
“This just shows it’s hard to have confidence in our sentencing system when some of these guys are going free, and some are not,” Eckert said.
Here’s how juvenile sentencing laws in Florida have changed in the past couple of years.
In the 2010 case Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court outright banned life sentences for juveniles in non-homicide cases, saying they amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment. The reasoning: Sscience has shown that youthful brains are not fully developed, and they are more susceptible to impulses and outside influences.
Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama, the high court banned mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder. The ruling still left room for life sentences for the most egregious of murders — but ordered judges to first hear evidence of a killer’s childhood and upbringing.
The Florida Supreme Court later ruled that most juvenile killers, no matter when they were convicted, should get re-sentenced under a new state law that allowed for a judge to consider possible release after 15, or 25 years, depending on their role in the crime.
In South Florida, a handful of juveniles have been re-sentenced under Miller. That includes Michael Hernandez, who still got life in prison for butchering his classmate inside a middle school bathroom; and Ronald Salazar, who went from life to 40 years for raping and slicing the throat of his sister.
But there was a category of inmates who were still — on paper anyway — eligible for parole and not affected by the reforms.
Florida mostly abolished parole in May 1983, although between 1983 and 1994, people convicted of first-degree murder were automatically sentenced to prison for life, with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Florida still has a parole commission that exists to hear cases for people convicted before that date, a total that numbers about 4,000 inmates.
Angelo Atwell’s case upended the system.
In May 2016, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the parole system gave Atwell, convicted of gunning down a Wilton Manors school teacher during a robbery in 1990, no real chance to ever leave prison. The state calculated his release date after the turn of the next century — December 2130.
“While technically Atwell is parole-eligible, it is a virtual certainty that Atwell will spend the rest of his life in prison,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in the 4-3 decision.
The sweeping decision affected hundreds of case in Florida. Over the next two years in Miami-Dade County, prosecutors and defense lawyers scrambled to find old files and witnesses in cases that had largely been forgotten by most.
At the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office, lawyers wound up with over 50 so-called Atwell clients, men who had been in prison for decades, since their teenage years. At least 27 accused of murder or other crimes wound up with new sentences, most of them through plea deals with the State Attorney’s Office.
That included Tito Gonzalez, who in 1984 took part in the robbery of Hialeah barber Amileano Hernandez and his wife, killing both while stealing drugs and a machine gun. Gonzalez was 16 at the time. In all, he spent more than 33 years behind bars before prosecutors agreed, in a plea bargain, that he could be released from prison.
Gonzalez, now 51 and a born-again Christian, left prison in July 2017, marveling at what everyone else barely notices: people bumping into each other at the malls, animals on leashes and the sheer power of smart phones. “When I went in there was a phone booth on every corner,” he said.
Despite the felony on his record, he landed a job at a Hobby Lobby in Lake City, married “the wife of my dreams” and is set to get his online bachelor’s degree from Oral Roberts University. The Christian university, he said, has asked him to speak at a commencement ceremony in May.
“What’s happening right now is an injustice,” Gonzalez said of “lifers” like him who now have no chance for release. “It’s a big mistake what the Supreme Court is doing. A lot of those guys have found their values.”
After Atwell, Miami-Dade prosecutors did not agree to new sentences in all cases.
They objected to a new sentence for Ray Bradley, who was 17 when he shot and killed Coral Gables Police Officer Robert DeKorte outside a liquor store in January 1972. When a judge threw out his sentence, prosecutors appealed; the case is still pending.
In another high-profile case, prosecutors asked a judge to keep a man named Nakia Huggins in prison for the murder of Paul Sarnecki, who was gunned down in August 1991 as he left his South Miami-Dade Italian restaurant. His two young kids, ages 5 and 10, were in the in the back seat of his car. Huggins was one of two triggermen.
His relatives attended five exhausting days of court hearings spread out over several weeks.
“It’s gotta stop.… Consider the victims,” widow Lori Sarnecki told the Herald. “But please to the court system, I beg you, I beg, please, please consider the victims. I think I can understand why criminals have rights, but what about we, as victims, what about our rights?”
In the wake of the Atwell decision, the Florida Supreme Court itself changed. One of the justices who supported the decision, E.C. Perry, retired and was replaced by Alan Lawson — who proved to be a key vote on two opinions overturning the landmark decision.
The first came in July when the Florida Supreme Court ruled in the case of Budry Michel, who was 16 when he killed a woman during the robbery of an Oakland Park convenience store in 1991. The court ruled that the parole system did indeed offer a meaningful chance at release. The reason for the backtrack: the U.S. Supreme Court had just upheld the constitutionality of a program for the release of elderly patients in Virginia.
Then last month, the Florida Supreme Court slammed the door shut completely when it ruled in the case of Arthur Franklin, who at 17 committed a series of violent rapes and was sentenced to 1,000 years behind bars. The majority ruled his sentence was constitutional because he is still eligible for parole.
Justice Pariente, in a sharply worded dissent, noted that under parole guidelines, Franklin won’t be eligible for release until the “until 2352 — 369 years after his crimes.” The Florida Supreme Court this week declined to revisit the case.
Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez said at least 22 clients had hopes of getting a new hearing until Michel and Franklin came out.
“Our attorneys obviously worked with these clients and told them they they would have relief under Atwell, that is was just a matter of time,” Martinez said. “Now, to have their hopes completely dashed is tremendously disheartening to them, and it’s deeply troubling to the lawyers who have been working with them.”
So what now?
In Miami-Dade, the State Attorney’s Office is seeking to reinstate the life sentences of several defendants who had them tossed out while awaiting new hearings. That includes Kelvin Bryant, who was part of a group of young people who kidnapped Bridgette Gibbs in 1991 from a hotel. Gibbs was raped, bound, and then hurled into Biscayne Bay from atop a bridge. She drowned.
Bryant, 17 at the time of the murder, is now 45.
Gibbs’ brother, Arnold Gibbs, called the murder “vicious” and said the original life sentence was “just, as far as I’m concerned.”
“He’s lucky he didn’t get the electric chair,” said Gibbs, a retired Miami police major and Cape Coral police chief. “He should serve the sentence as it was pronounced by the judge.”
A judge next month may also rule in the case of three men who as teens went on a high-profile killing spree starting in December 1969. Nathaniel Pressley, Charles Cobb and Lawrence Evans went on a 21-day killing and robbery rampage that left five people dead. They were originally sentenced to death, but the sentences were later converted to life in prison.
Peterson, who killed German tourist Jorg Schell in 1991, originally faced the death penalty, back before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the execution of juveniles. To save his life, his lawyers negotiated a plea deal in which the teenager accepted a life prison term with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
At the time, prosecutors acknowledged that Peterson had a life marred by homelessness, poverty and failed journeys through the juvenile justice system. “He deserves the benefit of the bargain he struck — an opportunity to rejoin society after 25 years,” his lawyer, Tibbitt, wrote in a motion to the court. “The crimes that Damon Peterson committed are undeniably tragic and inexcusable…. But Damon is not irredeemable.”