It was a David versus Goliath moment for the Colusa County District Attorney’s Office, after winning a lawsuit against the State of California in an effort to keep convicted killer Nathan Ramazzini behind bars.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge James Arguelies, on Oct. 23, ruled that SB 394, a law that grants parole hearings to convicted murderers who committed their crimes when they were under the age of 18, was unlawful.
It’s a case that will likely end up in the 9th District Court of Appeals and could possibly wind its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s a win for us,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Brendan Farrell, who successfully argued the case. “So, we’re off to the next step.”
Meanwhile, Ramazzini, 40, who has served 22 years of a life without parole (LWOP) sentence, will not be getting out of jail anytime soon, despite the effort of California’s progressive legislature to rewrite juvenile sentencing laws. SB 394 was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017 and is part of a slew of juvenile justice reform goals to completely eliminate the practice of prosecuting and incarcerating youth as adults.
Ramazzini was convicted in 1998 for killing his childhood best friend, Eric Ingebretsen, when both boys were just 16 years old.
His LWOP sentence followed a rash of new “tough on crime” laws in the 1990s after homicides committed by juveniles quadrupled, most of them reported to be gang related.
In his ruling, Judge Arguelies said that pre-existing law authorizes courts to sentence juveniles convicted of special circumstance homicides to life without the possibility of parole as part of a voter-approved initiative, Proposition 115, which is known as the Crime Victims Justice Reform Act.
SB 394, Farrell argued (and Arguelies agreed), passed without a two-third majority of the Assembly, a shortcoming that violated Article II, Section 10(c) of the California Constitution.
Argulies did not question whether SB 394 furthered public good by attempting to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court decision that juveniles sentenced to eventually die in prison was a cruel and inhumane punishment, but whether it was permissible, given the earlier enacted initiative measure grants judges the discretion to impose LWOP on inmates who are irreparably corrupt.
Ramazzini, who took the stand during his resentencing hearing in 2018, casually recalled planning Erik’s murder with 19-year-old Leo Contreras. He showed no remorse for the brutal slaying on July 15, 1997, and easily described striking multiple lethal blows to Erik’s head with a baseball bat, although he denied the use of a knife to mutilate his dead body.
District Attorney Matthew Beauchamp, who oversaw the resentencing hearing, said Ramazzini’s behavior at the time of the killing likely stems from a deeper pathology than just bad but correctable behavior of a youth. Ramazzini saved the bat he used to kill Ingebretsen as a souvenir, but threw away his bloody shoes and clothing, before joining the search party the next day for his missing friend. Beauchamp also said Ramazzini bragged to other inmates while he awaited trial that he enjoyed the sound of bones crunching and the sound of the knife entering Ingebretsen’s body, which are things not easily dismissed as youthful transgressions.
Since the passage of California’s new juvenile justice reform laws, about 160 inmates serving long determinate sentences or LWOP for crimes committed as juveniles have been released from prison, according to the Post-Conviction Justice Project, which represents Ramazinni in his quest for parole.
Most of those released from prison, however, are inmates whom the new laws were intended: youthful offenders who got caught up in gang violence in which someone was seriously injured or killed and have since been active in the rehabilitation process while in prison.
After winning the landmark case, Farrell said that if state lawmakers are bent on granting Ramazzini a parole hearing, then they need to go back and pass SB 394 legally.
“If they truly believe it’s the right thing, then they should be able to convince two thirds of the Legislature that it’s the right thing,” Farrell said. ♣