In Arizona, Hundreds of Prisoners Have a Life Sentence That Doesn't Exist
Murder is ugly, and murderers are not sympathetic characters.
But justice is justice, and a deal is a deal.
We expect the men and women who administer the criminal justice system — prosecutors, defense attorneys, and especially judges — to know the law and to apply it fairly.
Yet, for more than 20 years they have been cutting plea deals and meting out a sentence that was abolished in 1993: Life with a chance of parole after 25 or 35 years.
Some of those deals are about to come due.
Danny Valdez, for example, was part of a 1995 drug deal that went bad in Glendale. One person was killed, and no one was sure who fired the shot.
Valdez took a plea deal to avoid death row, and following the terms of the agreement, the judge sentenced him to life in prison with a chance of parole after 25 years.
The only problem: Parole was abolished in Arizona in 1993. As of January 1994, it was replaced by a sentence that sounds similar, but in fact nearly eliminates the possibility of ever leaving prison alive.
Valdez should have been sentenced to “life with chance of release after 25 years.”
“Parole” was something that could be granted by judgment of a parole board, based on the prisoner's behavior and rehabilitation, without the approval of a politician.
But release is a long shot, because it requires the prisoner to petition the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, which can only recommend a pardon or commutation of sentence by the governor.