YOUNG AND INCARCERATED: Life sentences for people who aren’t yet 18

Source NM’s series on the state’s sentencing laws and the possibility for reform

By: - November 20, 2021 6:00 am

A prison guard escorts Santana Serrano back to her cell on Nov. 12 at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

It’s a moment in Santana Serrano’s life — just a few seconds really — when she was a teenager that changed everything. Source NM’s Austin Fisher brings us this series.

Fisher reported that the basics of her case were not in question:

Two younger guys got in a fight down in Hobbs, N.M. Serrano was holding her boyfriend’s things while he fought: shirt, hat — gun.

Her boyfriend, DeAndre Gonzales, lost the fight then came to her and got his gun. He shot and killed the other teen, 16-year-old Daniel Garcia.

Both Serrano and Gonzales were convicted of first-degree murder.

She was 17 when it happened. She’s 25 now. She’ll be about 50 before she sees the outside of the women’s prison in Grants, N.M., if nothing changes. Her lawyer says she’s exhausted her legal options. Lawmakers are looking at reforming sentencing for people who aren’t yet adults in the next legislative session.

 

Part 1: Girl convicted of murder at age 17 because of a bungled defense, lawyer says

No one has disputed the fact that it was Gonzales and not Serrano who killed Daniel Garcia in 2014, her attorney says. Since then she has maintained throughout her trial and appeals that Gonzales grabbed the gun out of her hands before he fired the fatal shot.

Although Serrano was 17 when the killing happened, she was charged with first-degree murder and tried as an adult under the theory that she was legally responsible as an accessory to the murder. She will be nearly 50 years old when she first becomes eligible for parole. Even then, her freedom is not guaranteed. Legal experts say Serrano’s case is a tragic misapplication of the law around juvenile punishment.

 

Part 2: Woman sentenced to life when she was 17 has exhausted her legal options

An attorney has taken up her case, arguing a previous lawyer bungled her defense. But both the state and federal courts have denied her petitions arguing that her imprisonment is unlawful. She’s pretty much exhausted her legal options.

“Her case is so unfortunate, because she didn’t kill anybody,” said Stephen Taylor, an assistant federal defender helping with the case.

Serrano’s sentencing hearing on March 30, 2015 lasted just 19 minutes. The court sentenced her to life in prison with eligibility for parole after 30 years. According to Serrano’s petition, her trial lawyer presented no evidence or legal arguments in the hearing.

 

Part 3: Corrections data show a high rate of girls serving life sentences in New Mexico

Data from the New Mexico prison system suggest a disproportionate number of incarcerated women are serving life sentences who were under the age of 18 when they committed their offenses. Overall, very few women are serving life sentences in New Mexico. Of the 446 people serving life sentences in the state, only 15 of them are women.

Staff attorney for the ACLU Denali Wilson found that a disproportionate number of women serving life sentences were not yet legally adults at the time of their offenses. The rate of people being sentenced to life when they were under 18 is more than three times higher for women than it is for men in New Mexico.

“In all of the cases of women serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were children, the girls’ male romantic partner was involved,” Wilson said. “In most cases, it was undisputed that — between them — the romantic partner was principally culpable.”

 

Part 4: NM legislators consider reforming sentencing for people under 18

People who are under 18 but tried and convicted as adults and sentenced to life have to serve 30 years before being eligible for parole. New Mexico lawmakers are trying to cut that time in half.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, Reps. Gail Chasey and Dayan Hochman-Vigil asked the Governor’s Office at the end of August to place the “second chance” bill on the call for the 2022 session.

In a letter to the governor in August, they argued their bill is a “measured” solution to a longstanding problem in the state. New Mexico has failed “to hold its children accountable in age-appropriate, trauma-informed ways” that focus on young people’s capacity for change and rehabilitation, they wrote.

 

Part 5: Woman sentenced to life as a teen holds onto faith and family inside prison walls

When Santana Serrano first arrived at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility, she would call her mother crying.

“Mom, I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this,” she recalled saying. “Please help me get me out. Do whatever you can. I can’t do it.”

Her mother told her yes, she could. At the moment she didn’t believe her, Serrano said, but now she knows it’s true.

 

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Marisa Demarco
Marisa Demarco

Marisa Demarco is an Albuquerque-based journalist and lifelong New Mexican whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent almost two decades as a reporter, producer and newsroom leader, co-founding the New Mexico Compass, and editing and writing for the Weekly Alibi, the Albuquerque Tribune and UNM's Daily Lobo. She began a career in radio full-time at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health and criminal legal reform for much of the last seven years. During the pandemic, she was also the executive producer for “Your NM Gov” and “No More Normal,” shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice.

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