FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Shortly after Riley Briones Jr. arrived in federal prison, he cut off his long, braided hair in a symbolic death to his former self.
As a violent gang leader and just 18 years old, Briones drove the getaway car during a fatal robbery in the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian community outside of Phoenix in 1994. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to a mandatory life sentence without parole.
In prison, he was baptized a Christian, takes care of other inmates who call him Brother Briones, got his GED and has a clean disciplinary record, his lawyers say in their latest bid to have the prisoner’s sentence cut short. 45 year old man.
“He is clearly on the side of the line where he should walk free,” said his lawyer, Easha Anand.
The United States Supreme Court opened the door to this possibility with a 2012 ruling that only the few irredeemable juvenile offenders should serve life in prison. Over the past decade, most of the 39 defendants in federal cases who have received this sentence have received suspended sentences and are serving far fewer years behind bars.
Briones is among those whose life sentences have been upheld. His attorneys recently petitioned the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to give Briones another chance to have him reduced.
At the same time, more than 60 legal and academic experts have called on the federal government to cap sentences for juvenile offenders at 30 years, create a committee to review life sentences in the future, and reconsider its position in the Briones case.
Prosecutors in the Briones case have until May to respond to the latest petition. They’ve already acknowledged he’s gotten better in prison and finally expressed remorse, but say it’s not worthy of early release because he downplayed his role in the ‘Eastside Crips Rolling 30s’ and his crimes that terrorized Salt River amid a wave of gang violence on Native American Reservations in the 1990s.
Briones’ prison sentence began in 1997 after he was convicted of the death of Brian Patrick Lindsay, a Northern Arizona University student who was home for the summer and worked solo in a Subway Restaurant.
Briones led four other gang members to the restaurant on May 15, 1994, and waited outside. Lindsay was making sandwiches when one of the gang members came out to talk to Briones, came back inside, and shot Lindsay in the face. The shooter pumped more bullets into Lindsay as he lay on the ground.
The gang took the food and a bank bag with $100.
Prosecutors said the murder was the most egregious of the violent crimes Briones helped plot and carry out on the reservation about 15 miles from Phoenix. But there are others who have displayed a “murderous, unrepentant and unabashed attitude”, they said, including drive-by shootings and fires set in the homes of rival gang members.
Briones was also convicted of arson, witness tampering and assault with a dangerous weapon. Three of his co-defendants in Lindsay’s death were sentenced to life in prison. One cooperated with the authorities and received a lesser sentence.
Because Briones was a minor at the time of the murder, he was eligible for a retrial after the 2012 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama. It was part of a series of cases in which the court found that minors should be treated differently from adults, in part because of a lack of maturity.
The February letter calling for Justice Department reform pointed to statistics that show the median sentence for adults convicted of murder in the federal system is 20 years — nearly half the median for juvenile offenders. The agency did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Briones’ case has been ping pong in the courts as laws change regarding juvenile offenders. A three-judge 9th Circuit panel recently ruled against Briones, who is enrolled in San Carlos Apache and Salt River Pima-Maricopa. The full court could reconsider.
Emails and a phone message left with Lindsay’s parents were not returned. In a letter to court when Briones was re-sentenced in 2016, Sharyn and Brian Lindsay said the passage of time had done little to mend their hearts.
“Isn’t a life without our son enough without having to go through another legal process? they wrote.
They were in the courtroom during the trial when prosecutors played the 911 recording in which Lindsay told dispatchers through a mouthful of blood that he had been shot.
“I can still almost hear that tape,” Paul Charlton, one of the prosecutors at the time, told The Associated Press recently. “And if you had been through this trial, if you had seen the ruthless and remorseless manner in which these individuals faced the evidence against them and their lack of remorse at that time, most people would, as I remains today, antipathetic to Mr. Briones’s arguments.”
Bennit Hayes, who served time with Briones at federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, said he thought Briones was a changed man. He said Briones studied carefully, worked hard and encouraged others to lead better lives.
“He was the light in the candle that I put against everything else,” said Hayes, whose sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2016.
Briones is now in the Phoenix Metro Federal Prison, near Carmen Briones’ home on the Salt River Reservation. She said they kept in touch but had not seen each other since last May due to pandemic restrictions.
Freeing Riley Briones from prison would mean they could be a family in a more meaningful way, she said. But whatever the 9th Circuit’s decision, she said it wouldn’t change who her husband became.
“He will continue wherever he is to serve, mentor, be a positive example and give guidance to those he comes in contact with,” said Carmen Briones, who is Pascua Yaqui. “We’ve had enough calls coming and going that…wisdom tells you to pray and see what happens.”
Fonseca covers indigenous communities on the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP