Sam Mandez finally caught a break last week. A Colorado trial judge re-sentenced him to 30 years in prison for a 1992 murder he was accused of committing when he was just 14 years old. The ruling last week, a long-awaited result of a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions restricting juvenile life-without-parole sentences, will allow Mandez to be released from custody in the next three or four years. He will emerge, around age 40, with a chance — his first chance — to build a life around his friends and family.
Mandez’s story tracks many of the core issues that animate criminal justice in the United States, and I’ve covered it as closely as I could for the past six years. His conviction decades ago was the result of shoddy police work and overzealous prosecutors. There were no eyewitnesses to the 1992 murder of an elderly woman named Frida Winter in Greeley, Colorado. There was no confession. No murder weapon was found. Police failed to pursue strong leads or secure and process the crime scene. Four years later, desperate for an arrest, they targeted Mandez.
His fingerprints were found on a window sill of Winter’s house, police said, discounting the fact that Mandez and his grandfather had painted part of the house a year before her death. Prosecutors conceded that Mandez hadn’t actually killed Winter but had instead helped burglarize her home on the night of her death as part of a plot with her actual killers. That allowed them to charge him with felony-murder, a discredited tool prosecutors too often use to unfairly press their advantage at trial.
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