Public defender Jesse Ruben (left) with his client, Christian Speaker, 18 during his February guilty plea. He will ask Judge Paul Burdick to appoint a new attorney Friday.
The Eureka man accused of gunning down a Watsonville convenience store owner during an October 2010 robbery when he was 17 will wait to see whether he will serve a life term without parole or a lesser sentence, a Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge said Wednesday.
Christian Speaker, now 18, is accused of shooting Yahya Saleh Ali Ahmed, 32, at point blank range after he robbed the Fiesta Latino Market on East Beach Street.
He pleaded guilty to the crime on Feb. 3, and faces a sentence of either life without parole or 50 years to life.
The sentencing hearing Wednesday was delayed, however, because the U.S. Supreme Court is currently mulling the constitutionality of life sentences for minors.
“We thought it would be prudent to wait to see what the decision was,” said Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney Alex Byers, who is prosecuting the case.
Speaker will be back in court on Friday for a closed hearing in which he will ask Judge Paul Burdick to appoint a new public defender. A new sentencing hearing will also be set at that time.
It is unclear how the eventual decision will affect Speaker’s case, but Byers indicated that he will still pursue a sentence of 50 years to life.
“The nature of the crime — the victims and his history— the more time he spends behind bars the better off we all are,” Byers said.
Two Supreme Court cases currently before the Supreme Court involve two men currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole and both of whom were minors when their offenses occurred.
There are currently more than 300 people in California and more than 2,500 nationwide serving life sentences, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Evan Miller was 14 and living in an Arkansas trailer park when he was convicted of helping a 16-year-old friend bludgeon a man during a fight, setting his home on fire and leaving him to die.
Kuntrell Jackson was accused of participating in the robbery of a video store in Alabama in which the clerk was gunned down. Jackson was not the gunman, but prosecutors said he was inside the store during the robbery and threatened the clerk.
At issue is whether such sentences amount to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
This is not the first time the nation’s top court has visited the issue. A 2005 ruling abolished the death penalty for minors, and in 2010 the justices said that life without parole was unconstitutional for all defendants except for those who commit murder.
It is not clear whether the Supreme Court will abolish sentences of life without parole for minors, merely restrict them to serious offenses or otherwise amend sentencing guidelines.
Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate in the children’s division of Human Rights Watch, said that attorneys often find it difficult to defend youthful offenders because their brains are developing and are still learning how to make good decisions.
Senate Bill 9, currently being by U.S. lawmakers, would allow judges to sentence minors to life without parole but would also give them the discretion to later review the cases.
“The reason this is so important is that these people are still developing into who they are going to be,” Calvin said. “Judges cannot make well-founded final judgements about people who are still developing, and that’s what teens are.”
Police say Speaker was staying in a group home in Tulare County, where he met a 17-year-old male from Watsonville. The pair ran away from the home Oct. 16, 2010 and headed to Watsonville.
On Oct. 17 police say Speaker entered the 98 Store on Freedom Boulevard and briefly walked through the store. He returned the next day, selected several items and attempted to leave without paying for them. When the elderly owner tried to stop him, he pushed her to the ground and fled.
On Oct. 19, police say Speaker went into the Fiesta Latino Store at 451 East Beach St. just after 1 p.m. and wandered among the aisles. There were several customers in the store, who finished their shopping and left. The suspect approached the counter and spoke briefly with Ahmed.
Speaker left, and returned about 10 minutes later with a handgun. He walked directly to the counter where Ahmed was standing, pointed it at his chest and demanded money. Ahmed opened the register and handed over the money, and after getting it the suspect shot Ahmed once in the chest and fled. Ahmed, an immigrant from Yemen, died at the scene a short time later.
Both incidents were caught on surveillance video.
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