For Jimmie Bowen, the Miami gang member who coldly executed a 10-month-old baby during an ambush on a drug rival in Brownsville, the prison time came as no surprise.
“Give me my time,” Bowen, who deliberately targeted the infant, snarled defiantly to a Miami-Dade judge. The judge promptly sentenced him Wednesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But for co-defendant Bernard Jones, who drove Bowen to the scene but was not a triggerman, the decision was much thornier for Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Bertila Soto.
She believed Jones hailed from a good family, had been active in church and turned to Brownsville’s New Moneii gang only after his mother died of breast cancer.
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“Mr. Jones, I think I’m going to go to my death bed wondering what happened to you,” said Soto, the chief judge of Miami’s 11th circuit.
Because of current legal questions involving Florida’s juvenile sentencing structure — Bowen and Jones were both minors at the time of the murder — Soto’s options were limited.
Originally, Soto told lawyers Wednesday, she planned to give Jones 40 years in prison. But a recent appeals court decision seemingly revived the long-abolished parole system — but just for juvenile defendants like Jones.
So in the end, saying her hands were tied, Soto sentenced Jones to life in prison, but with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
“It would be unjust for him to serve the same sentence as Bowen,” Soto wrote in her sentencing order, asking a future parole board to take into account she planned to give Jones 40 years, not life. “He can be rehabilitated.”
A Miami-Dade jury convicted Bowen and Jones last year in the December 2008 murder of infant Derrick Days and another man, Pierre Roche, 26.
Prosecutors say Bowen and Jones, members of the New Moneii gang, targeted Roche in a dispute over drug turf.
On the day of the killings, Bowen saw Roche outside the Annie Coleman housing project playing dominoes at table with a group of men, including Derrick Days, Sr., who was holding his infant son.
After asking Jones to drive him, Bowen popped out of the gang’s stolen car and intentionally aimed for the baby, thinking that Roche was the father, investigators said. The child was sitting in his father’s lap at the time.
A third man also was shot in the face, but survived.
“There was nothing immature about the way [Bowen] murdered his victims,” Judge Soto wrote in her order. “It was not a spur of the moment decision. It was planned. It was a sophisticated and savvy plan.”
Bowen and Jones were 16 and 17 respectively at the time of the murder.
In years past, a conviction in Florida for first-degree murder carried an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole. But in June 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court barred automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder. The ruling does not ban life sentences without parole in those cases, but judges must take a defendant’s age into consideration.
Another wrinkle: Florida long ago effectively abolished the parole system, and despite court rulings, Florida lawmakers have refused to change juvenile sentencing laws.
In Bowen and Jones’ case, Judge Soto held an all-day hearing on Aug. 13, listening to testimony from psychologists and relatives about the defendants’ difficult childhoods.
Two weeks later, the state Fifth District Court of Appeals in Daytona Beach ruled that juvenile first-degree murder sentences should “revert” back to the law before the sentencing laws were changed in 1994. That means youths convicted of first-degree murder should get life sentences — but with the chance for parole after 25 years.
Soto sentenced Jones, though not Bowen, under the appeal court’s decision. Ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court will have to iron out just how the state deals with sentencing murderers who were minors when they committed the crime.
The judge criticized lawmakers Wednesday, saying they’ve had the chance to change the law.
“I know I cannot legislate from the bench,” she said. “I think the Legislature, in the last two years, had to address this issue and failed to do so. I encourage the Legislature to look at the sentencing options of juveniles in murder cases.”