GREELEY — On Thursday morning inside Weld County courtroom No. 12, even the judge was in tears.
Standing before her, head shaved, staring straight ahead in an orange prison jumpsuit was Sam Mandez, now 41.
When he was a teenager, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of an elderly Greeley woman even though no evidence tied him to the crime. In 2016, in the wake of a Supreme Court decision declaring life without parole for minors unconstitutional, the Colorado legislature changed the law to call for reconsideration of all such sentences here. Mandez was one of 48 up for reconsideration in the state.
On Tuesday, he got his hearing.
It didn’t take the judge, Julie Hoskins, long to rule. She reset Mandez’s release date for about six years from now — though his attorney believes he’ll be out in closer to four.
Hoskins apologized for needing to pause to cry midway through announcing her decision.
There were sniffles in the packed courtroom. “Congratulations,” one man whispered from the back of the room, to no one in particular. Mandez showed little emotion as officers escorted him out.
Several dozen friends and family members spilled into the hallway, where more tears were shed. Some of joy and hope, and others of profound sadness for what can never be undone.
“I’m glad it’s over,” whispered his mother, Rosela, in the hallway. The last time she’d seen him before Tuesday was in 2004. The son she remembers had a full head of hair, loved baseball and his grandparents. She wiped her eyes. “He suffered a lot.”
Mandez, who was 14 the night Winter died, always maintained he didn’t murder her, that instead he was serving as a lookout for two other boys who were going to burgle her home, that killing her was never part of the plan. His part of the crime, he said, consisted of breaking a window and standing watch outside. His fingerprints were found all over the window, but nowhere inside the home.
“A 14-year-old does not leave dozens of fingerprints on a window he breaks and then leave none in the house,” Mandez’s attorney, Nicole Mooney, told the judge.
No one else has ever been arrested in the case. Mooney said she does not know where the two boys Mandez named are today.
He was 19 when he entered the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Ordway, Colo. Soon after, he was put in solitary confinement as punishment for small offenses like making an unpermitted phone call and using a bathroom key when he wasn’t supposed to. He was in solitary for almost 17 years, spending 23 hours a day alone during his young adult years. The experience, which a former DOC chief called “torture,” left him with what doctors described as major mental illness.
Mandez missed the birth of his son, who arrived in March of 1996, two months after he was locked up. His missed the deaths of his father, grandpa, grandma, aunt and cousin.
“The letters he wrote, and the pictures — we look just alike,” said his son, Jacob, now 23. “He was like me, I was like him. I knew he wasn’t a bad person.”
They met for the first time on Tuesday in court, when Jacob offered brief remarks for the record.
“I never thought I’d have a chance to see my father with my own two eyes,” he said before the judge. He turned to his father: “Hi, Sam. I’m your son Jacob, and no matter what happens after today, I’ll always be your son.”
In solitary, Mandez grew delusional. He told a doctor who evaluated him that he was an ex-Green Beret and Denver International Airport architect who was married to Dog the Bounty Hunter’s daughter.
This is not how he was before prison, family members say. The boy who admitted he was a lookout at a crime scene was also the boy his relatives remember as shy, polite and helpful, with considerable baseball talent and dreams of going to college.
“Painfully shy,” said his aunt, Catalina Sanchez, in the hallway after the hearing. “But just the sweetest boy.”
Before Tuesday, his sister, Aundrea Trujillo-Mandez, hadn’t seen Mandez since she was nine years old.
“I have memories before he went to prison,” she said. “Vague memories. Him pushing me in strollers, dancing with me. Small memories.”
The Department of Corrections did not rehabilitate him, but rather facilitated his decline, doctors said in a documentary the ACLU of Colorado published six years ago. Judge Hoskins said the same thing in court on Tuesday.
“That 17 years causes significant deterioration,” she said.
In prison, Mandez attempted suicide by hanging. He survived but injured his head. Mandez described himself “a ghost” and “the living dead.”
He’s doing much better now, taking regular medication that he knows he’ll be on for the rest of his life, Mooney said.
His story, and the ACLU documentary, helped push the DOC to reverse its policy on prolonged solitary confinement. As recently as 2011, some 1,500 men were locked up alone for 23 hours a day, as Mandez was for those 17 years. That’s no longer allowed in Colorado prisons, though shorter terms of solitary are still permitted.
“While Sam is certainly not the only reason for these reforms, his specific story became a rallying cry for change,” wrote the ACLU’s Rebecca Wallace in a letter to Hoskins on Monday.
Wallace lamented in the letter, “Our state failed him – we locked him away without any opportunity to learn or grow, and we left him to come of age alone in a cell tormented by the demons of his isolation.”
Hoskins on Tuesday changed Mandez’s sentence to 30 years. With the 23.5 he’s already served, plus earned time for good behavior, his attorney, Nicole Mooney, expects he’ll be free within about four years.
“I think today represents justice for Sam. I think no 14-year-old should be sentenced to life without parole, without any chance at redemption,” Mooney said.
Jacob says he can’t wait to get to know him. His mom, who went 15 years without seeing him, says she can’t wait for his release. Friends from his youth, several of whom were present Tuesday, say they’ll be there for him when he gets out.
“We hung out everyday, until the day,” said Anthony Trujillo. “I’ll be here.”
After the hearing, in the hallway outside the courtroom, his aunt Catalina cried in some combination of relief, joy and pain.
“Will he ever be out of prison, after this?” she said. “Look at the people that go to Iraq and come back. Are they ever back? He’ll never be free.”