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Erik Burgess, Published June 28 2012

Supreme Court ruling won't affect North Dakota's only minor sentenced to life in prison

FARGO – Barry Garcia was 17 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of ever getting out.

His crime – shooting and killing a West Fargo woman at point-blank range with a sawed-off shotgun – was deemed so heinous his judge ruled out parole.

“You haven’t given me any reason to believe you can change,” Judge Ralph Erickson said to Garcia at the 1996 sentencing.

That’s not going to change with a ruling Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down mandatory life terms without parole for juvenile offenses.

“I don’t think that that case will affect Barry Garcia,” said Richard Henderson, an assistant federal public defender stationed in Fargo who represented Garcia at his state Supreme Court appeal in 2004.

Henderson said Garcia’s case doesn’t apply to the new ruling because Garcia’s judge wasn’t mandated by state law. Erickson had the option to give Garcia parole.

“He made it very clear that he was aware that he had the authority to give Barry a sentence less than life without parole,” Henderson said. “And that he decided based on all the sentencing factors that he considered that life without parole was the most appropriate sentence.”

The man who prosecuted Garcia – John Goff, now an attorney in Fargo – agreed.

“The bottom line is, I don’t think it’s going to have any impact on Garcia,” he said.

Garcia became the first juvenile to be sentenced to life without parole in the state of North Dakota after a jury convicted him of murdering Cherryl Tendeland, 50, of West Fargo in November 1995. No other juveniles have been given the same sentence in North Dakota, a state corrections official said.

Henderson and Goff said Garcia’s juvenile record potentially played a role in how his case was handled.

“He had at least a couple of what would’ve been felonies had he been an adult already in his juvenile history,” Goff said.

The Supreme Court ruling is meant to give judges more discretion when dealing with juveniles because they should not be lumped together with adults when it comes to crimes like murder, said Mark Friese, a Fargo attorney.

North Dakota has no such law on the books anyway.

“The North Dakota Legislature has been very good about not tying judges’ hands,” Friese said.

There are about 2,100 individuals in the nation currently serving mandatory sentences of life without parole for murders committed when they were under 18. A state corrections official said seven of them are in Minnesota.

The ruling will affect those seven inmates, said Bradford Colbert, an assistant state public defender and professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

“I think what’s pretty clear is that they’re going to have to be eligible to be released,” Colbert said.

He said he has no doubt the decision will be applied retroactively. The problem is determining when these individuals should be eligible for parole.

“That is the really difficult question,” Colbert said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518