Freddy Chacon was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 16, but the course of his future changed dramatically after a March 12 appearance in SLO County Superior Court.
On that day, Chacon appeared before Superior Court Judge Michael Duffy. In a transcript of that hearing, the 38-year-old was apologetic about what he was convicted for. “I take full responsibility for what I did,” he told Duffy.
Chacon’s words stood in stark contrast to those of his 16-year-old self, who along with 17-year-old accomplice Raul Lopez took a female librarian hostage at the El Paso De Robles Youth Correctional Facility in Paso Robles in 1993.
Court records stated that while Lopez held a sharpened shank to the librarian’s face, Chacon threatened that they would “kill the bitch” if he and his partner were not given a pickup truck to escape the facility in. They planned to drive to Mexico.
Chacon and his accomplice never made it to Mexico. They crashed the truck after about 150 feet. In the wake of the botched escape, Duffy sentenced the two young men to life in prison without the possibility of parole on multiple felony charges, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and kidnapping.
“Well, I just want to say initially I think it’s very apparent in the record that the Fred Chacon who’s sitting here today is not the same Fed Chacon that was sentenced by that court over 20 years ago,” Jennifer Gaspar, one of Chacon’s team of attorneys, told Duffy at the March hearing.
After the botched escape and subsequent sentencing, Chacon was transferred to the Pelican Bay State Prison. He would spend the next 22 years in that facility, and he spent 17 of those years in solitary confinement, Gaspar said. Chacon was transferred to the California Men’s Colony before his March 12 hearing.
“I was impressed by how articulate and how thoughtful he’d become,” Gaspar told New Times.
Shortly after the hearing, on April 16, Duffy ordered that Chacon be released from custody. Chacon’s release was granted under the auspices of SB 9, a bill signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012. Lopez, Chacon’s accomplice, was released under the same law in March.
The law enables individuals who were sentenced to life without parole before they turned 18 to petition courts for resentencing. In order to qualify for resentencing, the offender must have served at least 15 years of that sentence. The law also says courts must consider the progress an individual’s made toward rehabilitation.
At his March hearing, Chacon said he was remorseful. He apologized to his victim, who was present. Duffy, over the protests of San Luis Obispo Deputy District Attorney Gregory Devitt, agreed that the he met the criteria for resentencing.
“So I am making a ruling that the new law does include someone in [Chacon’s] position,” he said.
Chacon, a Mexican national, plans to return to his home country, where his father and his extended family live. Gaspar said he was currently in the custody of Federal Immigration Officials.
At the March hearing, SLO Deputy DA Devitt argued that SB 9 didn’t apply to Chacon because his sentence was reduced to life with the possibility of parole in 2011. That ruling occurred after a U.S. Supreme Court decision found that such sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional except in cases of homicide.
“The legal argument from our perspective is that the law only applies to those people who were juveniles at the time of offense, and received a life-without-parole sentence,” Devitt told New Times. “[Chacon] was resentenced to life with possibility of parole, therefore the change in the law does not apply to him.”
Devitt also raised questions about Chacon’s rehabilitation at the hearing. He called a California Men’s Colony correctional officer to the stand to testify that Chacon was identified as an “associate” of the Mexican Mafia.
Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham told New Times that the SLO District Attorney’s Office would respond to the changes in the law that would fulfill the office’s primary mission, which was keeping the community safe. Cunningham acknowledged that there is a growing discussion in the criminal justice system about the issue of sentencing juveniles accused of serious crimes.
“I think there is a general feeling that the penal code for these life sentences for juveniles needs to be re-examined,” he said.
Chacon’s attorney, Gaspar, agreed and indicated that federal court rulings and a growing number of new laws regarding juvenile sentencing could represent a turning point on the issue.
“I think it’s very clear that there is a sea change,” Gaspar said.
As the headlines about Chacon and Lopez’s release begin to fade, their stories are far from over. Lopez’s release is already before California’s Second District Court of Appeals. Devitt said that the SLO County DA’s office has already filed a notice of appeal in Chacon’s case.
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.