Jorge Ariel Saenz got a stiff sentence of 37 years after shooting a rival gang member in the back outside a Yakima Valley hardware store in 2008. (The victim survived.) Yesterday, however, the state Court of Appeals said that sentence was not good enough. The court ruled that the 25-year-old should be subject to life imprisonment under the state's three-strikes law, in part because of a crime he committed when he was just 15.
Saenz was known as "Spooky" in the Yakima Valley gang scene (see picture of recent arrest above and this week's cover story on the valley), according to court documents. In 2001, he was charged with multiple crimes, including three counts of second degree assault, one of the lowest-level crimes that counts as a "strike." It does so, however, only if a defendant is an adult or treated as such by the justice system.
And herein lies the sticky point in the Saenz case. The young man agreed to have the 2001 charges heard by Lewis County Superior Court rather than the local juvenile court. He even declined to have a hearing on the matter. Why? His Bellingham public defender, Tanesha Canzater, tells Seattle Weekly she doesn't know. But she questions whether he knew what he was doing.
"You're talking about a child," she says. "Could he really have understood the severity of that?"
The Yakima Superior Court judge who heard Saenz' most recent case also expressed reservations in the face of a request from prosecutors to apply the three-strikes law. Judge Michael Schwab declined to do so, noting that there were insufficient court records establishing why Saenz's case was moved to an adult court.
But the appeals court cited remarks from Saenz's attorney at the time, who said that he had discussed the implications of the move with his client.
The appeals court remanded the case back to the trial court for resentencing. Canzater says she will appeal to the state Supreme Court.