A five-year push to win clemency for Andrew Medina, who was 17 when he was sentenced to life without parole in the 1999 killing of a teenage ice cream store worker in Old Colorado City, has been jolted by a ruling that could threaten reforms for "juvenile lifers."
A district judge this week found that part of a 2016 law granting a path to freedom for certain youthful offenders violates the state Constitution, limiting Medina's chances for early release days before he was to be resentenced.
The ruling by Senior District Judge Scott B. Epstein could fuel opposition to reforms in Colorado undertaken in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that took aim at automatic life sentences for juveniles, criminal justice reform advocates say.
The debate comes amid complaints about the slow pace of re-evaluating sentences of those convicted under a previous sentencing scheme - a source of continuing anxiety for families of both victims and offenders.
Only six of Colorado's 48 inmates have had resentencing hearings in the four years since the high court ruled that life sentences were "cruel and unusual punishment," advocates say, leading some to charge the state doesn't want to comply.
"We gave them hope and the hope has been unjustified," said Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit Pendulum Foundation, which advocates for juvenile offenders in state prisons.
Medina, now 33, was 15 when he and two other teens were involved in a carjacking and fatal shooting of Kristopher Lohrmeyer, a 17-year-old employee at the Colorado City Creamery on West Colorado Avenue. Although Medina is believed to be the shooter, prosecutors did not accuse him of acting intentionally when he pulled the trigger.
At issue in the Medina case is a law that sought to provide a second chance for juvenile convicted of murder between 1990 and 2006 - a period during which even those under 18 received automatic life sentences after murder convictions.
Although Colorado changed its sentencing for juveniles in 2006, it did not apply to those who were sentenced during the 16-year window.
That changed in 2016, when the Colorado Legislature passed two laws providing a path for reduced sentences for the four dozen convicts.
The provision under fire in the Medina case involves a smaller subset of that population - juveniles who were convicted of so-called felony murder, a charge reserved for those who participated in a felony that resulted in a death, as opposed to those who intended to take a life.
Colorado prisons house less than a dozen such inmates, including Medina.
In his ruling, Epstein found that the state Legislature exceeded its authority when it provided the possibility of a 30- to 50-year sentence for felony murder convicts. He granted a motion by the El Paso County District Attorney's Office that attacked the law on procedural grounds, arguing that the sentencing range is unconstitutional because the reduced sentence wouldn't be available to anyone convicted of felony murder before or after the 16-year period.
One of Medina's attorneys, Nicole Mooney, said prosecutors in at least three other jurisdictions have filed similar motions, and suggested that prosecutors' success in El Paso County could encourage more challenges - and embolden judges to grant them.
Prosecutor Jennifer Viehman, who mounted the successful challenge, said the 2016 law violated the state Constitution's provisions for special legislation by creating a "closed class" of beneficiaries.
"You can't just single out a little special class of people, and make laws just for them," she said. "That's what the judge agreed with."
Without the chance for parole after 30 years, then only one sentence is available - life in prison with the chance for parole after 40 years.
That takes discretion away from judges, violating the U.S. Supreme Court's directive against one-size-fits-all sentences for juvenile murderers, Mooney argued.
Mooney said drafters of the 2016 legislation initially planned to offer a potential sentencing range of 16 to 48 years to all juveniles who received automatic life sentences without parole between 1990 and 2006. While the bills were up for debate, that changed to 30 to 50 years. Then the option was stripped for everyone except those convicted of felony murder - of which there are 11 in Colorado.
How the ruling will affect Medina is uncertain for now.
Two days after issuing the order, Epstein recused himself from the case on the day of Medina's resentencing because of personal ties to the victim's aunt, raising questions over whether his ruling will stand when a new judge takes over. Mooney said she will request that the issue be re-evaluated. If she is unsuccessful, she intends to appeal, which would send the issue to the state Supreme Court.
The issue is likely to take center stage when Medina returns to court Aug. 31.