Ask The Indy: Why didn’t the judge release Sam Mandez?

He'll be out of prison in a few years, but some readers felt that isn't soon enough.

After Sam Mandez was resentenced last week, some readers asked us why the judge didn't just release him. We looked into it. (Screenshot from documentary Out of Sight, Out of Mind - The Story of Sam Mandez)

After more than half a lifetime in prison — nearly all of that in solitary confinement — Sam Mandez got some good news last week: he’ll be released within about six years. 

That’s a significant sentence reduction for a man originally ordered to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. Now, he’s guaranteed to be out of prison well before he turns 50.

We wrote about Mandez’s case on Thursday. It’s heartbreaking on a number of levels. An innocent elderly woman was killed in her home in 1992, and Mandez — who was just 14 the night she died — was sentenced to life in prison even though no evidence tied him to the murder itself. He has always maintained that he had nothing to do with the killing. Prison officials locked Mandez in solitary confinement for nearly 17 years, which destroyed his mental state and drove him to attempt suicide. He went many years between family visits and didn’t meet his 23-year-old son until last week, in court.

No one present in court Thursday seemed to be under any impression that Mandez’s time in prison has served to rehabilitate him, or that his sentence and subsequent punishment by solitary confinement fit the crime. Many felt it was quite the opposite.

“The state broke this guy,” said Denise Maes of the ACLU of Colorado, which in 2012 produced a documentary about Mandez.

Prosecutors did not push back on his reduced sentence. Neither did the family of the woman murdered in 1992. Even the judge, Julie Hoskins, who said Mandez has shown “an incredible capacity for change,” was moved to tears as she announced her ruling.

After our story came out, several Indy readers asked us why she didn’t simply rule that he should be released on the spot — or, at least, in the very near future. Given the flimsy evidence against Mandez, his decades of suffering and Hoskins’s apparent sympathy for him, it’s a fair question.

The answer is that Hoskins had little choice. In fact, she treated Mandez as leniently as Colorado law allows.

A brief history of the law Hoskins was working with: In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that life-without-parole sentences for minors are unconstitutional. Such sentencing, Justice Elena Kagan wrote at the time, “precludes consideration of (a convict’s) chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”

Responding to this ruling, Colorado’s state legislature in 2016 passed a law requiring resentencing hearings for Mandez and 47 others sentenced to life without parole between 1990 and 2006. The law gave judges in these cases the option to resentence either to 30 to 50 years in prison — retroactive to the start of the sentence — or to uphold the life sentence but include the possibility of parole after 40 years served.

Hoskins on Thursday ruled that Mandez will be released after 30 years served. He’s already been behind bars for 23.5. That’s how she came up with the reduction in his sentence to 6.5 more years. 

Even if Colorado law had allowed for Mandez’s immediate release, he is in treatment for severe mental illness. It’s likely he would have been sent to a transitional, re-entry program rather than straight home.

Many in Colorado argued in 2016 that the change in the law wasn’t tough enough. Republican District Attorney George Brauchler of the 18th Judicial District bitterly fought the legislation as it was being debated.

He wasn’t available by phone Monday, but he made his feelings plain at the time. 

“The most violent offenders — 17 (year-old) murderers included — have ‘earned’ prison, not a chance to be in our neighborhoods,” he tweeted then. 

Another tweet read: “The goal of this bill is to give every convicted juvenile murderer a chance to be in our neighborhoods again.”

This wasn’t a party-line vote. The 2016 bill had Democrat and Republican sponsors in both the House and the Senate. And the cast of district attorneys pushing back was similarly bipartisan. Brauchler’s coalition included El Paso’s Republican DA Dan May, and Denver’s Democratic DA Mitch Morrissey. (In other news, Morrissey might be running for Denver DA again.)

“Shame on you legislators. Shame on anybody who is supporting this bill,” May said at the time, according to The Denver Post.

Brauchler challenged the law after it passed but the Colorado Supreme Court upheld it last year.

During the bill’s drafting, there were others who felt it was too strict and did not allow sufficient flexibility in extraordinary cases, such as Mandez’s. A progressive coalition that included the ACLU and the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar suggested that a resentencing range of 20 to 30 years would be more appropriate than a range of 30 to 50.

The Capitol tussle over this legislation underscored the ongoing tension over the meaning of “justice” in criminal cases and its eye-of-the-beholder nature. One side wanted people out as soon as 20 years in. Another wanted them to sit in prison forever. And, as often happens beneath the dome, two sides with competing interests negotiated and settled on an imperfect middle ground. 

“We attach a sense of safety, security to [sentencing ranges] that really doesn’t exist,” the ACLU’s Maes said. “District attorneys and the public in general think there’s something to these numbers. But they’re just that — they’re just numbers.”