SANTA CRUZ -- A recent change in state law has led attorneys to swap positions on whether a teen who was 17 when he killed a Watsonville store owner two years ago should be sentenced to life without possibility of parole.
Christian Speaker, 19, is to be sentenced Friday on murder, robbery and gun charges for the slaying of Yayha Ahmed at Fiesta Latino Market on Oct. 19, 2010.
But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and state law, have changed since Speaker admitted to the crimes in February.
On June 25, a divided court outlawed mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles, ruling they were unconstitutional "cruel and unusual" punishment. The court left open the possibility that judges could send juveniles to prison for life without parole in individual murder cases, but said state laws cannot automatically impose such a sentence.
On Sept. 30, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 9, authored by Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, which would allow reviews of some life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders after they serve a minimum 15 years.
The law allows judges to reduce sentences to 25 years to life if the inmate shows remorse and efforts at rehabilitation.
That glimmer of hope has led attorney Jesse Ruben to change his stance and seek life without possibility of parole for Speaker, while prosecutors also have done an about face and will seek 55 years to life, postponing any shot at parole for about 50 years.
And while Ruben, in an interview outside court Tuesday, was not addressing his client's rehabilitation potential, he said the District Attorney's Office is bucking the trend of allowing teens a reasonable chance of redemption.
"I guess they see it as their duty to keep everyone in as long as possible, but it's the opposite strategy from the changes we are seeing everywhere else," he said. "It's about what we do as a society."
Ruben also alleges it's "wholly inappropriate" that District Attorney Bob Lee's wife, Barbara Lee, a supervisor in the county Probation Department, approved the pre-sentencing report prepared for his client.
"Probation is an arm of the court and they are supposed to be neutral," he said.
The District Attorney said he could not comment on a case pending sentencing.
As for sentencing, prosecutor Alex Byers said earlier that "the more time (Speaker) spends behind bars, the safer we are."
Surveillance footage from the East Beach Street market shows Speaker demanding cash from Ahmed, seizing the money and then shooting him point-blank in the chest. The 32-year-old Yemeni immigrant and father of two young daughters died at the scene.
Speaker, who is from Eureka, was convicted of assault as a teen, prosecutors said. He had escaped from a Tulare County group home a few days before the shooting, with another teen from Watsonville, police said.
He was readily identified in the store's surveillance video. Detectives said he had been in the store three times that day.
Speaker also admitted to robbing a Watsonville discount store. Ruben said that could add five years to the potential sentence. The other possible 50 years-to-life is comprised of 25 years to life for murder and 25 years to life for using a gun, he said.
When Speaker pleaded guilty to the charges in February, Burdick said he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 50 years to life.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow Sentinel reporter Cathy Kelly on Twitter at Twitter.com/cathykelly9