A California man, sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes he committed as a teenager, was the first person in those circumstances to be set free under new state laws aimed at alleviating harsh sentences imposed on youth, his lawyers and a rights group announced Wednesday.
Convicted of murder and attempted robbery at the age of 16, Edel Gonzalez spent 23 years in prison before the passage of two state laws that ultimately led to his release. The first, Senate Bill 9, resulted in a new sentence for Gonzalez with the possibility of parole. The second, Senate Bill 260, mandated that his parole board consider his diminished culpability as a youth offender. The laws were enacted in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
Gonzalez, who is not a U.S. citizen, was expected to be deported to Tijuana, Mexico, but it's not entirely clear when that will happen, according to Bryant Yang, one of the attorneys for Gonzalez.
"As of yesterday, he was in an ICE facility in Orange County. And we don’t know whether he has been released today or whether he’s going to be released this week," Yang said.
Gonzalez, who committed his crimes with adult gang members during a botched car jacking in 1991, was unfairly sentenced because he was given “the same sentence as the trigger man and sentenced to the maximum punishment allowable under the law,” his lawyers said.
“At that time, he was the youngest individual in Orange County’s history to receive LWOP [life in prison without the possibility of parole],” they added.
While in prison, Gonzalez reportedly displayed exemplary behavior and showed sincere remorse, which helped his lawyers make the case that he no longer posed a danger to society.
"Two years ago … Edel believed he would spend the rest of his life behind bars despite being a model inmate," Yang said. "Our firm is proud to have helped Edel gain his freedom and is honored that we’ve helped shaped law and set new precedent."
After learning of his release on Tuesday, Gonzalez issued a statement through his attorneys encouraging inmates in similar situations to remain steadfast.
"To those like me who thought at one time there was no light at the end of the tunnel, there is light and hope. Keep the faith," he said.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday praised Gonzalez’s release, saying in a statement that the move "indicated that the United States is moving closer to the rest of the world in its approach to sentencing for youth."
"Instead of locking up teens and throwing away the key, California’s new laws require judges to consider not only that the person was a juvenile offender, but also the choices they’ve made since then," said Elizabeth Calvin, senior child rights advocate at Human Rights Watch.
"Edel Gonzalez is an example of how a young person can completely turn his life around."