A trial court’s decision to sentence an offender, who was only 16 at the time of his crimes, to more than 92 years in prison for his involvement in a drive-by shooting was overturned recently. The trial judge stated that he could not use the offender’s young age as a basis for giving him a lighter sentence. The Washington Court of Appeals said this was incorrect because, in the wake of a 2015 Washington Supreme Court ruling, courts are required to analyze whether an offender’s age affected his culpability.
The defendant in this case, Guadalupe Solis-Diaz, was 16 when he took part in a gang-related drive-by shooting in Centralia. The shooting resulted in the state charging him with six counts of first-degree assault, a count of drive-by shooting, and a firearms charge. He went to trial, and the jury found him guilty on all counts. Despite the defendant’s requests that the judge take into account his youthful age and give him a substantially reduced sentence because of his “diminished capacity to understand the wrongfulness and consequences of his actions,” the judge administered a “standard-range” sentence. In this case, that meant Solis-Diaz was sentenced to 92 1/2 years in prison.
Solis-Diaz appealed, and he won. Generally, trial judges’ sentencing decisions are only overturned if the trial judge commits what the law calls an “abuse of discretion.” One type of abuse of discretion occurs if the trial judge refuses even to consider an accused person’s request for a lesser sentence because the judge thinks that he is legally prohibited from doing so. When the trial court in Solis-Diaz’s case sentenced him, the judge believed that he could not consider the defendant’s age in issuing a sentence. However, a Supreme Court case from last year, State v. O’Dell, ruled that this was not the correct way to decide sentences for youthful offenders.
In the O’Dell case, the court looked at a man convicted of a rape he committed shortly after turning 18. The trial court sentenced him to almost eight years, concluding that it could not consider O’Dell’s age in crafting the sentence. The Supreme Court overturned that sentence and ordered the trial court to create a new sentence that took all factors, including O’Dell’s age, into account. The court explained that, “in light of what we know today about adolescents’ cognitive and emotional development, we conclude that youth may, in fact …diminish a defendant’s culpability” and serve as a compelling reason to issue a lesser sentence.
In Solis-Diaz’s case, he was only 16, rather than 18, when he participated in the drive-by shooting. The concept that the defendant’s age might indicate a diminished level of appreciation for the consequences of his action “would apply with magnified force” in the case of a 16-year-old like Solis-Diaz. For that reason, the sentence must be reversed, and the trial court must take the defendant’s young age and his resulting potentially reduced capacity into account before sentencing him.
Whenever you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, it is important to retain experienced counsel to help you protect your rights. The Pierce County/Tacoma assault attorneys at Smith & White, PLLC have many years of experience helping the accused and have the resources you need for your case. Call us today at 253-363-8662 to schedule your initial consultation. The first consultation is free.