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How One Man’s Journey Tells the Story of American Criminal Justice

In a Colorado courtroom, a measure of justice caught up at last to Sam Mandez, writes Brennan Center Fellow Andrew Cohen.

September 17, 2019

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.

The trial itself was a travesty upon justice. Prosecutors could have proceeded against Mandez under juvenile rules because of his age at the time of the murder. But they refused to do so because of the nature of the crime — and yet never pursued a case against whoever actually did murder Winters. Then they failed to comply with their constitutional obligation to timely share exculpatory with Mandez’s lawyer. A key prosecution witness changed his story shortly before he testified, a fact not shared with defense attorneys until after his testimony. When Mandez’s lawyers challenged this fundamental violation, the trial judge downplayed it. 

Mandez was quickly convicted. Here, again, the system utterly failed him. His trial judge, the same one who had virtually guaranteed his conviction by failing to protect his fair trial rights, lamented the fact that he had no choice but to sentence the teenager to life in prison without the possibility of parole. A juror later said the police had “screwed up the investigation” of the case, and that it would have been helpful to have had information about those fingerprints, but it didn’t matter. The Colorado Court of Appeals rubber-stamped Mandez’s conviction.

Then they sent Mandez to prison. And then they sent him to solitary confinement for a series of petty prison offenses, like putting a key in a bathroom lock after it had been closed for the evening. Continuing, prolonged isolated detention made Sam Mandez mentally ill — so ill, in fact, that he became delusional and suicidal. And the more delusional he became, the longer Colorado prison officials locked him up. For year after year, for 17 years, this fruitless, cruel cycle continued, until it was broken six years ago by a new generation of prison leaders.

And here, at last, is where Mandez’s story offers hope instead of despair. The ACLU of Colorado took on Mandez’s case years ago and published a documentary of sorts titled “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” which chronicled Mandez’s descent into madness. His case got national attention, forcing Colorado and other states to change the way corrections officials handle mentally ill inmates. Now Colorado prisoners get more treatment and therapy and less mindless discipline. Unsurprisingly, inmates like Mandez have responded well.

So well, in fact, that a generation after a heartless judge sent Mandez away, another Colorado trial judge openly wept in court as she reduced his sentence. Dozens of other men and women, sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles, also have had or will have their sentences re-evaluated. Those hearings surely cannot match the Mandez hearing for drama, during which he saw his son Jacob, born two months after he was locked up in 2016, for the very first time. The Colorado Independent covered that story last week:

“I never thought I’d have a chance to see my father with my own two eyes,” he said before the judge. He turned to his father: “Hi, Sam. I’m your son Jacob, and no matter what happens after today, I’ll always be your son.” 

There are some cases, some causes, which transcend the ordinary stories of injustice. There are some people behind bars in this country who are unforgettable not just for what they have endured but for the symbol they represent. Mandez is one of those people. His case is one of those causes. No one who cares about criminal justice reform, or about making our justice systems more fair and accountable, or about the value of a single human being, should be rooting against Mandez as he begins his journey toward a life beyond bars.

The views expressed are the authors own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.