Pro Bono Client Sentenced as Teen to Life without Parole Released

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March 2015

After obtaining the first-ever resentencing under Senate Bill 9 ("SB 9") for Edel Gonzalez, a pro bono client sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile, Irell & Manella LLP secured his release from prison with the help of USC's Post-Conviction Justice Project.

“We’re thrilled and grateful that Governor Brown, the Board of Parole Hearings and the Orange County Superior Court each recognized the remarkable transformation that our pro bono client Edel Gonzalez has gone through in the past 24 years – from an alcoholic, troubled and immature youth to a non-violent, addiction-free man of faith,” said Bryant Yang, lead counsel for Gonzalez and Irell & Manella attorney. "Two years ago, prior to Irell’s involvement, Edel believed he would die behind bars despite being a model inmate. Our firm is proud to have helped Edel gain his freedom and is honored that its commitment to pro bono work has shaped law and set new precedent."

The recently enacted SB 9, also known as the California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, gives individuals sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for an offense committed while under the age of 18 the right to petition the court for a recall and resentencing after serving 15 years of the original sentence. The Human Rights Watch, which helped draft and pass SB 9, referred Gonzalez to the firm. Gonzalez is believed to be the youngest person in Orange County's history to have been sentenced to life without parole.

In December 2013, Irell convinced the Orange County Superior Court to recall his original sentence and to pronounce a new parole-eligible sentence of 25 years to life. It was the first time anyone has been resentenced under SB 9. Since that precedent-setting decision, public defender offices and law school clinics across the State of California have used Irell's filings as exemplars and have followed the firm's litigation strategy.

After his resentencing, Irell and the Post-Conviction Justice Project guided Gonzalez through the parole process allowed by Senate Bill 260, a recent statute that revised parole guidelines for juvenile offenders. On October 15, 2014, Irell appeared before the Board of Parole Hearings and argued that Gonzalez was suitable for parole because he did not pose a threat to public safety, he had shown sincere remorse, and uncontroverted evidence established that he has rehabilitated. The parole board unanimously agreed that Gonzalez should be paroled and recommended his release. 

The parole board's decision became final after 120 days. Thereafter, the governor had the discretion to reverse the parole board's suitability finding within 30 days. Irell and the Post-Conviction Justice Clinic made submissions to the governor on Gonzalez's behalf, and Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch gathered more than 500 letters of support. In March 2015, the governor declined to reverse the decision of the parole board. On March 25, 2015, Gonzalez gained his liberty after spending 24 years in prison.

The Irell attorneys who represented Gonzalez were Bryant Yang, who served as lead counsel, and Zachary Davidson. Professor Heidi Rummel and Scott Mills from the Post-Conviction Justice Project served as co-counsel.