State court rules juvenile arsonist can serve life
PHOENIX – There's nothing unconstitutional about sending a juvenile to prison for the rest of his life for a series of arson fires in Tucson, the Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled.
Judge Karl Eppich, writing for a divided panel, acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to impose a life sentence on juvenile offenders who do not commit homicide. And a separate ruling from the nation's high court found that prison without possibility of parole is a violation of the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment unless the juvenile's crimes "reflect irreparable corruption” rather than "transient immaturity.”
But Eppich said that Arizona courts are not bound by those rulings, at least not in this case. He said nothing in those precedents address consecutive sentences, like the 140-year term imposed on Mark Kasic Jr. for setting the fires, a sentence which effectively becomes a life term.
That reasoning by Eppich and appellate Judge Philip Espinosa drew a stinging dissent from appellate Judge Peter Eckerstrom.
"They have embraced a regime in which juveniles who commit a lone murder are entitled to potential sentencing relief while those who, like Kasic, commit a sequence of crimes – where no person is killed – are not,” Eckerstrom wrote, a system he said is hardly proportional.
"This result should give the majority pause,” he said.
In 2009 a jury found Kasic guilty of 32 felonies arising from six arsons and one attempted arson committed over a one-year period beginning when he was 17, though some occurred after he became an adult.
According to court records, most of the arsons on the east side of Tucson involved occupied residences.
All of the fires were set in the same manner, with Kasic entering a carport or storage unit between midnight and daybreak – while the residents were asleep – gathering flammable materials and setting them on fire, often with an accelerant like gasoline.
A city fire investigator called Kasic "the most prolific I've seen.”
"He seems like he knew exactly what he was doing,” said Thomas Quesnel. "We're lucky someone didn't get killed.”
Kasic, who has been in prison since being sentenced, sought relief from his sentences based on the most recent Supreme Court rulings about life terms for juveniles.
But Epplich said none of those cases setting out new precedents involved consecutive sentences.
"We do not consider the aggregate of multiple sentences when evaluating a claim under the Eighth Amendment,” he wrote.
Eckerstrom said that ignores the essence of what the Supreme Court has ruled.
"The Eighth Amendment forbids imprisoning a juvenile offender for life without hope of release,” he said. "This rule applies even to those juveniles who have committed premeditated, first-degree murder.”
And Eckerstrom said he can find "no logical or jurisprudential basis” for excluding someone who was sentenced by a judge for several offenses from this same constitutional protection.
The judge also said there was evidence of the kind of immaturity in this case that the Supreme Court concluded in the other rulings should not allow life sentences of juveniles.
"Kasic committed the offenses with the assistance and encouragement of his peers and no apparent motivation other than to impress his peers with a display of rebellion and risk-taking,” Eckerstorm wrote. And he said Kasic disclosed his crimes to other peers who were not involved, "an action that suggested he lacked any mature understanding of the gravity of his legal actions or the legal risks he faced in committing the arsons.”
He also noted that Kasic had been abandoned by his mother and was raised by a single father and who was sexually abused by another enlisted man his father had trusted as a caregiver.
"Thus, Kasic's life situation and actions exhibited the very features of immaturity the (Supreme) Court has identified as its basis for exempting those juveniles, not irrevocably corrupt, from life imprisonment without hope of release,” Eckerstrom said.