Home > Uncategorized > Suave and the Supreme Court’s heartless ruling on juvenile lifers – posted 4/25/2021

Suave and the Supreme Court’s heartless ruling on juvenile lifers – posted 4/25/2021

Recently I listened to the seven-part podcast, Suave. It tells the remarkable story of David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez. A Latino juvenile lifer, Suave had been on what he described as a suicide mission. Convicted of the first degree murder of a 13 year old boy, Suave had received a sentence of life without parole when he was 17.

A hellion for his first ten years in prison (he spent 8 years in solitary confinement), things dramatically changed for Suave when he persuaded prison authorities to invite the journalist Maria Hinojosa to speak at Graterford State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania where he was incarcerated. He had heard Hinojosa on the radio and was intrigued because she was Latina. This was in 1993.

After Hinojosa spoke, he approached and asked, “I’m serving life. What can I do?” Hinojosa responded, “You could be my source. You could be the voice for the voiceless”.

That moment sparked a transformation in the life of Suave. Totally written off by the system, given an IQ of 56 and told he was retarded and would never amount to anything, Suave taught himself to read.

He paid another inmate in cigarettes to read him books Hinojosa sent him in prison. He read them over and over. Over a 16 year period, Suave obtained a GED and a B.A. degree from Villanova University.

He taught other inmates to read. As president of a Latino organization in prison, he organized a scholarship program for students who who lived in Philadelphia, Chester, and Bethlehem. The organization gave away scholarships of $500, $1,000 and $2,000. It was funded entirely by inmates from their wages which started at 19 cents an hour.

Also, Suave was a talented artist. He started painting watercolors when he was in prison. He taught other inmates how to paint watercolor. Suave contacted Mural Arts of Philadelphia and his wall murals started showing up around the city. He has produced 52 murals in the city of Philadelphia. His paintings are also on display at the Morton Contemporary Gallery.

Things in Suave’s life took a completely unexpected turn when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 in the case of Miller v Alabama that, for juveniles, mandatory life without parole sentences violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kagan emphasized that judges must be able to consider the characteristics of juvenile defendants in order to issue a fair and individualized sentence. Kagan wrote that adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk and inability to assess consequences”, all factors that should mitigate the punishment received by juvenile defendants.

Then in 2016, the Supreme Court decided the case of Montgomery v Louisiana and ruled that Miller had to be applied retroactively. Justice Kennedy, writing for a 6-3 majority, found that “children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability”. Kennedy wrote that the severest penalty must be reserved “for the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility”.

Justice Kennedy was responding to research that showed that because of developing brains, children were less culpable for their crimes and were more likely to be rehabilitated than adult offenders. The Court’s analysis was rooted in a long-standing rule that the Eighth Amendment embodies “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society”.

The Miller and Montgomery cases led to a review of Suave’s sentence and his release from incarceration in 2017 after over 30 years behind bars. Since his release, Suave has continued painting. He has also been an activist against mass incarceration.

I could not help but think about Suave and other Suaves when I heard about the new U.S. Supreme Court decision in Jones v Montgomery. In a shockingly backwards decision authored by Justice Kavanaugh, the Court reinstated juvenile life without parole. In embarrassing fashion, all the Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices went along.

In her passionate dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor dismantled the majority opinion and showed how the Court dishonestly overruled precedent while claiming it was not doing that. To quote her, “How low this Court’s respect for stare decisis has sunk”.

Youth supposedly mattered but the new majority in the U.S. Supreme Court regressed in its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. The Jones decision effectively closed the door of judicial review for many outstanding cases. As Justice Sotomayor wrote:

“The Eighth Amendment does not excuse children’s crimes, nor does it shield them from all punishment. It does, however, demand that most children be spared from punishments that give no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope.”

In Jones, the Court ignored the plaintiff’s significant steps toward rehabilitation and maturity. At his resentencing hearing, Jones told the Court:

“I’m not the same person I was when I was 15… I’ve become a pretty decent person in life. And I’ve pretty much taken every avenue that I could possibly take in prison to rehabilitate myself…Minors do have the ability to change.”

Like so many of the juveniles serving life without parole sentences, Jones was physically and verbally abused as a child. His stepfather beat him with belts, switches and a paddle labelled the Punisher. His stepfather did not call him by his name but referred to him by cruel epithets. Jones committed his horrible crime when he did not have access to medications he was taking for his mental health issues.

The U.S. is the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning age 18. The punishment is now banned in half the states and in a handful of states no one is serving the sentence. At the start of 2020, there were 1465 juvenile lifers nationally. This represents a 38% decline since 2016.

Juvenile life without parole sentences disproportionately hit Black and brown children. 70% of all juveniles serving life without parole are people of color. Dehumanized as super-predators, these inmates pay the price for institutionalized racism. It is no accident so many children of color get such extreme sentences. They are part of the broader trend of racial disparities in sentencing with people of color getting harsher sentences.

The Jones decision is an undeniably major setback in the movement to end juvenile life without parole. Instead of an “evolving standard of decency” on the Eighth Amendment, our Supreme Court has a devolving standard rooted in cruelty and blindness to institutional racism.

Suave’s life shows the difference second chances can make.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. paul2eaglin
    April 25, 2021 at 8:11 pm

    “Sandra” Sotomayor should be Sonia Sotomayor, although it is understandable that you had Sandra Day O’Connor in mind, no doubt. Wouldn’t she be shocked?
    paul eaglin

  2. Susannah Colt
    April 25, 2021 at 8:28 pm

    I was appalled at what the Supreme Court did. Thanks Trump. Great article. Thanks!

  3. Sue Burns
    April 25, 2021 at 9:05 pm

    I so appreciate your thoughtful articles, Jonathan. So well researched and written, always providing much information we would otherwise not likely be exposed to. Many thanks

    • April 25, 2021 at 9:16 pm

      Thanks Sue! I really appreciate hearing that.

  4. May 10, 2021 at 10:28 pm

    Jonathan, thank you for this powerful essay. I also listened to that podcast about Suave and thought of him with this horrible new ruling. I also thought of others because of the work I do. I live in Massachusetts (and visit NH often, btw), but I work for two Pennsylvania-based nonprofits focused on prison abolition, decarceration, and dismantling other forms of state violence: Abolitionist Law Center (http://abolitionistlawcenter.org/), and Straight Ahead (https://straight-ahead.org/).

    They are both led by Robert Saleem Holbrook, who like Suave, was sentenced to death by incarceration (life without possibility of parole) in Pennsylvania, for an offense he was involved with as a 16 yr old, that led to someone’s death – even though he was not the person who committed the fatal act. And, like Suave, he was released as a result of the earlier Supreme Court rulings. And now, after entering adult prison as a 16 yr old, serving 27 years, and being out for three years, he is the executive director of Abolitionist Law Center and Straight Ahead, which are working to dismantle our racist, classist criminal punishment system via class action litigation, changing legislation, and community organizing to build a mass movement of support.

    I invite you to learn more about the work of these two organizations. Based on your prolific writings, I think you would be very interested in and heartened by our work.

    • May 10, 2021 at 10:38 pm

      Thanks Amber. I will write you privately.

  5. June 22, 2021 at 8:15 pm

    Hi Jonathan, Would it be alright to share this article with our readers of Oregon Jewish Life and Arizona Jewish Life?

    • June 22, 2021 at 8:17 pm

      Yes, of course. That is fine. Jon

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