That's Life

The day that Michael Tate was found guilty, sentenced to life in prison for a murder committed before his eighteenth birthday, 45 inmates were already serving life sentences in Colorado for crimes they'd done as juveniles ("Headed for Trouble," July 7, 2005). But after Tate, only two more defendants could face the same fate.

It was twenty years ago that Colorado's district attorneys first obtained the right to direct-file juveniles accused of violent felonies into adult court, without having to get a judge's permission. In 1990, the Colorado Legislature passed a law dictating that all convictions for first-degree murder result in mandatory life-without-parole sentences — and juvies charged as adults were no exception.

Last year, the legislature finally changed the law, allowing for juvies convicted of first-degree murder — including felony murder — to be eligible for parole after forty years. By then, at least 47 juvies had received a life sentence, although three of those had their sentences overturned. And seven, including Tate and Michael Fitzgerald, were still awaiting trial, still looking at a life-without-parole sentence because they'd been charged with first-degree murder for crimes that occurred before the law was changed.

One, Randall Romero, was sentenced in January to life in prison in Adams County.

Still awaiting trial is Matthew Davies, who in April 2006 told a Colorado Springs police officer that he was responsible for the body with a bullet hole between its eyes found in the back of a burning pickup truck at the Garden of the Gods. The body was that of twenty-year-old Dustin Cisneros. Davies told officers that they'd been arguing over an AK-47 that he'd handed over to Cisneros as part of a meth deal, and Cisneros then refused to return. According to the arrest warrant, Davies shot Cisneros in the head and dragged his dead body into his apartment, where he wrapped it in a blanket and stashed it in the bathtub. With his nineteen-year-old girlfriend in tow, Davies retrieved a pickup that the couple had stolen earlier that week and then, along with another friend, put the body in the back of the truck, threw some trash on top of it, stopped at a 7-Eleven and filled a gas can with $6 worth of gas, drove to the park and set the truck ablaze.

At the same time Michael Tate went on trial in Jefferson County, Alberto Valles went on trial in Arapahoe County. He'd been charged with first-degree murder for a gangland shooting just two days before he turned eighteen. According to Valles's arrest warrant, in November 2005 he was rolling with a Sureño spin-off set, Wicked Side 13's, in a Nissan Altima when he leaned out of the window behind the driver and fired a rifle three times at a Monte Carlo driven by a former Wicked Side 13 who'd left to start his own set. One of those bullets struck and killed Richard Scobee, who was sitting in the Monte's back seat, talking on his cell phone.

But unlike the Tate jury, the jurors in Valles's case were unable to reach a verdict. The Arapahoe County district attorney decided to refile the case, and Valles is now scheduled for a second trial November 27.

The new law is not retroactive, and unless their cases are overturned or the juvies already convicted of first-degree murder are pardoned — Governor Bill Ritter recently created an executive clemency board exclusively for youth offenders — they'll never walk free again.