Juvenile lifer seeks relief amid widespread push for leniency

FLAGSTAF, Ariz. (AP) — Shortly after Riley Briones Jr. was imprisoned in federal prison, he chopped off his long, braided hair in the symbolic death of his old self.

As the leader of a violent gang and just shy of 18 years old, Briones drove a getaway car in a robbery at the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Community outside Phoenix in 1994. He was convicted of murder and given a mandatory sentence of life without punishment. parole

In prison, he has been baptized a Christian, ministers to other prisoners who call him Brother Briones have received his GED and have a disciplinary record, his lawyers said in their latest bid to reduce his sentence to the now 45-year-old. Is.

His lawyer Isha Anand said, “He is clearly on the edge of the line where he should walk free.”

The US Supreme Court opened the door to that possibility with a 2012 ruling that ruled that only the rare, irreparable juvenile delinquent should serve life in prison. Over the past decade, most of the 39 defendants in federal cases who have received this sentence have been relieved and are serving very few years behind bars.

Meanwhile, more than 60 legal experts and scholars have called on the federal government to set a 30-year sentence limit for juvenile offenders, to form a committee to review future life sentences, and to reconsider its stance in the Briones case. asked for.

But the move towards greater generosity has been gradual and not without resistance.

Briones is among those whose life sentence has been upheld in recent years, although he still has another chance.

Prosecutors in his case have strongly opposed the short duration. He argues that despite Briones’ reforms, he downplayed his role in the gang and its crimes, which terrorized the Salt River in the 1990s amid an explosion of gang violence on Native American reservations.


Briones began serving jail time in 1997 for the death of Northern Arizona University honors student Brian Patrick Lindsay, who was home for the summer and took a single shift at a Subway sandwich shop.

Briones drove four others from the infamous “Eastside Crips Rolling 30s” gang into a restaurant on May 15, 1994, one of whom was armed with a 9mm pistol. Lindsay was cooking the food she ordered when a gang member went outside to talk to Briones, came back inside and suddenly shot Lindsay in the face. He shoots Lindsay more as he sees blood on the floor.

Prosecutors wrote in court documents that they planned the robbery to obtain cash for the guns. They weren’t able to open the cash register, but carried a bank bag with $100 and the food the die-hard clerk had prepared.

Briones instructed another gang member to kill a maintenance man they had previously seen clearing the sidewalk, but they could not find him, court documents show.

Prosecutors said the murder was the most serious of the violent crimes that Briones had helped plot and carried out about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Phoenix. But there were others who showed a “killer, unrepentant and unforgiving attitude”, prosecutors said.

Gang members set a rival’s house on fire, pelting stones and shooting drive-bys. They stole cars and weapons to carry out the crime. They also planned to kill a tribal judge, federal prosecutors and tribal police investigators, but they were not followed, according to court documents.

Briones was arrested at his home in 1995. Along with murder, he was convicted of arson, witness tampering and assault with a dangerous weapon. Three of his co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment. One cooperated with prosecutors and received a shorter term.


Bennett Hayes can’t imagine the version of Briones with whom he spent time in federal prison in Beaumont, Texas. Hayes said he learned about Sunday chapel services and a Bible study group that had gathered in the prison yard, and that Briones welcomed him with a big smile and hug.

Hayes said he respected Briones because he never spoke to others, he studied carefully, and he worked hard and encouraged others to live better lives. Hayes said Brian prayed for anyone who asked.

“God bless me not only for camaraderie and brotherhood but to see real change,” Hayes said, whose sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2016. That was the light in the candle that I held against everything else. Was. Next.”

His wife, Carmen Briones, said that by then, Briones had cut his hair, which fell past his waist, abstained from food for 40 days, and surrendered to God.

“Riley made that decision,” said Carmen Briones, who is the Pascua Yankees nominee. “He said, ‘I have to live a different life. I can’t have the same life I used to’.”

The couple met when they were teenagers attending a youth camp at Arizona State University. They had a daughter who is now 30 years old and married in 1999, while Briones, who is from the San Carlos Apache and Salt River Pima-Maricopa, was in prison.


Briones’ case became worthy of opposition after the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama. This was part of a series of cases in which the court found that minors should be treated differently from adults, partly because of their lack of maturity. The court previously abolished the death penalty for juveniles and stayed the life sentence for juveniles except in cases of murder.

A handful of defendants in 39 federal cases—most of whom are minorities—have been released from prison.

The February 17 letter called for reform from the Justice Department, pointing to figures that the average sentence for adults convicted of murder in the federal system is 20 years — nearly half the average for juvenile offenders.

One of the signatories, Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Preservation at Georgetown University Law Center, said, “Taking a life is really serious, and I don’t take it down at all.” “But a full life in prison when you’re a teenager and you’re talking 40, 50, 60 years in prison is probably pretty much in almost every case and even for adults. also does not conform to common sentences.”

The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment from the Associated Press.

A decision in the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 gave Briones the opportunity to petition again before a district court judge to have his sentence reduced. But before he had a chance, the US Justice Department asked the US Supreme Court to hold the case until it made another decision, Jones v. Mississippi, which meant two other cases regarding juvenile offenders. I had to clarify the decisions.

From there, the Briones’ affair went back to the Ninth Circuit.

A three-judge panel ruled against Briones, and now his lawyers are asking the full court to reconsider. The central government’s response is due in May.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victim rights group, said law changes that allow persistent juvenile offenders to get another shot at liberty are damaging to families, communities and the criminal justice system.

“Some of these crimes are horrific, and the effects on families are enormous, and they never go away,” said group president Michael Rashford.

The campaign for fair punishment of youth has long argued that the changes a person makes after entering prison should matter, and that juvenile offenders should be able to live outside prison walls as adults. .

Rebecca Turner, who oversees federal affairs for the group, said, “If the facts of the crime are always going to be the dominant force, then Miller will not be interpreted meaningfully to outdo all this positive growth.”


The federal court in Arizona has awarded life sentences to more juvenile offenders than any other state. There are two juvenile delinquents in Texas who are serving life, but they weren’t able to be offended by how the courts interpreted Miller v. Alabama. South Carolina gave life to a prisoner.

All three federal cases in Arizona were from the Native American reservation, where the federal government has jurisdiction when the suspect, victim, or both are Native American for a set of major crimes, including murder. The punishments are, in general, more severe than if the reservation resulted in offenses and ended cases in a state court.

Brandon Peet, a Navajo, received a mandatory life sentence for raping and then killing a woman by throwing a stone at the head of a woman in the Navajo nation in 2002. A judge considered her dysfunctional upbringing, substance abuse issues, prison disciplinary record, and brutality. The offense of punishing him with 54 years in prison in 2017.

It is the third longest outrage among defendants, which does not include those whose life sentences were confirmed or who did not have the opportunity to plead for a shorter term. The resentment ranges from 15 years to 70 years.

The other Arizona defendant, Johnny Orsinger, is serving life at the age of 16 for the deaths of four people in two incidents. Orsinger, who is Ute and Mexican, also committed crimes against the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Utah. and Arizona. A co-defendant in one case, Lezmond Mitchell, was executed in 2020. He was the only Native American on federal death row at the time.


In Briones’ case, prosecutors acknowledged that he had changed for the better, but argued that he should remain imprisoned for life because he did not accept responsibility for Lindsay’s death and the founder of the gang that spanned other tribal reservations. His role as leader has been reduced.

A US District Court judge who angered Briones in 2016 said he considers Briones’ troubled childhood, including abuse at the hands of his father, Briones’ alcohol and drug use, and immaturity. He also noted that Briones was a model prisoner.

“However, some decisions have lifelong consequences,” the judge wrote.

The trial for Briones and his co-defendants was the first prosecution in an Indian country under a federal law aimed at increasing the punishment for organized crime. During the trial, prosecutors played a 911 recording in which Lindsay told dispatchers via a mouthful of blood that she had been shot. His parents were in the court.

“I can still almost hear that tape,” Paul Charlton, one of the prosecutors at the time, recently told the Associated Press. “And if you had been through that trial, if you had seen the harsh and ruthless way in which these individuals faced the evidence against them and their lack of remorse at the time, most people would be as I am today. I remain inconsistent with Mr. Brian’s arguments.”

The Salt River Police Department declined to comment. Emails and phone messages left for Lindsay’s parents at the number listed were not returned.

In a letter to the court during the Briones’ 2016 outburst, Sharyn and Brian Lindsay said that the passage of time did not make their lives easier or their hearts better.

“Isn’t enough a lifetime without our son without another court proceeding?” they wrote.

He established an engineering scholarship named after his son at Northern Arizona University.

Briones is now in federal prison in Metropolitan Phoenix, about a 50-minute drive from Carmen Briones’ home on the Salt River Reservation. She hasn’t seen him since last May because of pandemic restrictions, but they keep in touch via email and phone calls.

She said that releasing Riley Briones from prison would mean they could be a family in a more meaningful way. But whatever the 9th Circuit decides won’t change who her husband becomes, she said.

“Wherever he is still, he is going to be a minister, to mentor, to be a positive example and to guide those he has contact with,” she said. “We’ve had enough appeals come and go… wisdom will tell you just pray and see what happens.”


Fonseca incorporates indigenous communities into AP’s race and ethnicity team. follow him on twitter

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