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Changes in juvenile sentencing felt in LA

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Los Angeles Superior Court

On Friday, a judge sentenced Giovanni Hernandez to 50 years to life in prison for the murder of Gary Ortiz and the attempted murder of Rudy De La Torre in 2006. L.A. Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor made clear that if he'd sentenced Hernandez about a month and a half earlier, the convict would have received a sentence of more than four times that long.

"I want very much to sentence Mr. Hernandez to consecutive terms," totalling 210 years to life in prison, Pastor said. "He deserves it. But I can't do it, constitutionally. And that has kept me up at night."

Hernandez is among the early defendants who've benefitted from recent changes to juvenile sentencing in California and around the country. They're a result of recent high court decisions instructing judges to treat juvenile offenders differently from adults. In August, in a case called People v. Caballero, the California Supreme Court overturned a 110-years-to-life sentence for a juvenile convicted of three attempted murders. Juveniles who commit most crimes, the justices ruled, should be given meaningful opportunties for parole. When an offender's first parole hearing date is well beyond his or her likely lifetime, the court ruled, that's the same as issuing a life sentence.

Hernandez, now 21 years old, was 14 at the time of the shooting that claimed the life of Ortiz and left De La Torre with permanent brain damage. Charged in adult court, Hernandez had two trials. The first one ended in a hung jury, and the second, completed this summer, ended in convictions.

At Friday's sentencing hearing, several of Ortiz's and De La Torre's relatives spoke to the judge.

Gloria Ortiz, Gary's grandmother, wept so hard she couldn't speak the first time prosecutors called her forward. On a second attempt, Ortiz told the judge that her grandson had always had nightmares that someone would shoot him in the stomach, and would wake up crying. She would comfort him, she said, rubbing his back and telling him he would live for a long, long time. Then, Gary was shot and killed on July 30, 2006, on his way to the beach with a group of friends. 

"Not a day goes by without missing him," Ortiz said.

Rudy De La Torre was also shot, in the head, leaving him with permanent brain damage and round-the-clock medical needs. His sister, Patricia, also spoke at Hernandez's sentencing on behalf of her brother, who six years after the shooting, can barely speak.

Three months after the shooting, De La Torre said, "Rudy's first word was 'mama,' like a baby," she said. "But while a baby's future is full of hope, my brother's future is full of hospital stays. He will never experience an independent life."

Giovanni Hernandez's sister, Jessica, asked the judge for leniency, saying he had always been a good student, athlete, and well behaved boy who had started hanging out with the wrong people.

Sister Claudia Romero, who worked with Hernandez at the juvenile hall, also testified to his good nature and strong family ties. She questioned the verdict in the case. 

Romero said she's also horrified at the pain Ortiz and De La Torre's families have endured. 

"I just hope their pain and anger is directed at the right person," she said.

Hernandez has consistently maintained that he's innocent, and he questioned the reliability of the eyewitness identifications that were key to his conviction. Hernandez's attorney plans to file an appeal of his conviction next week.

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