Killer at 17, hope at 38: Court ruling lets juvenile offenders be resentenced

A court ruling lets juvenile offenders like Lolita Barthel be resentenced.
Published September 26 2015
Updated September 27 2015

TAMPA — By the time she was 17, Lolita Barthel was living a double life: schoolgirl on weekdays, armed robber whenever she and her friends needed cash.

Now 38, Barthel admits she was a cocky teenager with a history of emotional problems, a mother addicted to crack cocaine and an absent father. She was also in love, or thought she was, and felt compelled to hold on to her girlfriend's affections by buying her the most fashionable clothes and the latest Air Jordans.

When her best friend asked her to join in a robbery, she didn't hesitate.

"I didn't want to be the girl that goes into an innocent man's house and takes something he's worked for, but you don't see that when you're a juvenile," Barthel said in a recent interview. "You don't see the reality."

At 17, in 1996, Barthel and two friends broke into the Temple Terrace home of Richard Menendez, a 64-year-old traveling salesman. Barthel says she had never shot a gun before, but when Menendez went for the firearm in her hands she pulled the trigger.

Menendez's wife returned home later that night to find her husband of 42 years dead on the floor of their home. By the time she was 19, Barthel had been convicted of Menendez's murder and several robberies and was serving a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

But after two decades in prison, Barthel and other juvenile offenders like her are being resentenced under a landmark ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that says teenagers who kill cannot be automatically consigned to prison for life.

Last spring, in one of a series of decisions regarding juveniles, Florida's Supreme Court applied this ruling retroactively, affecting hundreds of inmates across the state, many of whom have spent decades in prison. Barthel's new sentencing hearing — her first and perhaps her last chance to have a judge reconsider her future — is scheduled for February.

Her victim's family strongly opposes her release.

"From our standpoint, she got what she deserved," said Nelson Menendez, 52, the couple's only child. "If you're willing to do something like that, you've got to be willing to pay the consequences."

For years, Florida has led the nation in charging juveniles as adults. But as sentencing laws begin to change across the country, the state's legacy of handing down harsh punishments to teenagers is causing widespread upheaval.

Statewide, there are approximately 1,700 inmates who were under 18 when they were arrested and will qualify for new sentencing hearings either immediately or in the near future. These include prisoners like Barthel, as well as hundreds of juvenile offenders who committed nonhomicide crimes such as armed robbery or rape and were sentenced to life without parole or a term of years tantamount to life. Under a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, these people must be given a "meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."

"It is a reckoning, and in some ways, a course correction," said Cara Drinan, an associate professor of law at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "The decisions that came out in 2015 from the Florida Supreme Court sent a really strong message that children are different in the eyes of the law."

Another case pending before the Florida Supreme Court could dramatically increase the number of inmates eligible for resentencing. In that lawsuit, attorneys have argued that even parole-eligible juvenile offenders deserve to have their sentences reviewed by a judge, as the state's parole process is so unforgiving that it can't be considered a meaningful opportunity for release.

The task of rebuilding these inmates' cases has largely fallen on already overburdened public defenders, many of whom say they do not have enough money or staff to reopen hundreds of complicated cases. To address this situation, they have asked the Legislature for a total of roughly $4.5 million in additional money for next year.

"It's critical we get this funding," said Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt, who estimated her office will likely have to reopen 135 cases of juveniles offenders. "There's no doubt Hillsborough is going to be very, very busy because, for many years, we were number one in the state" in prosecuting teenagers as adults, she said.

In the Sixth Judicial Circuit, which covers Pinellas and Pasco counties, the public defender expects to reopen 139 cases.

State law spells out a host of factors judges must now consider when resentencing youthful offenders, including the defendant's background and prior criminal history as well as their age, maturity, and intellectual capacity at the time of the crime. Defendants like Barthel, who was convicted of first-degree murder, can still be sentenced to life in prison, but by law their cases must be reviewed after 25 years. At a minimum, a judge could reduce her sentence to 40 years.

Whether prosecutors will recommend a lesser sentence for Barthel and others depends on the circumstances of each case, said Hillsborough Chief Assistant State Attorney Michael Sinacore. "However, a severe or maximum sentence may still be appropriate regardless of good behavior in prison and maturation," he wrote in an email.

In an interview at the Falkenburg Road Jail, Barthel said that since learning of the court's ruling granting her a new sentencing, she has been obsessing over how to explain the last two decades of her life to a judge.

Even after her conviction, it took her years to stop insisting on her innocence, she said. Shame, compounded by worry that she had become a burden to her family, made it difficult to admit guilt.

In 2009, convinced she was going to die in prison, she made up her mind to commit suicide, she said. But on the day she was going to go through with this plan, she was suddenly transferred to another prison. Others might have attributed this disruption to the workings of an opaque bureaucracy. But to Barthel, it was divine intervention.

"I really truly asked God, if you can do something with my life, even here, just do it," she said. "And honestly, things just started changing."

After racking up a list of rule violations — disorderly conduct, fighting, lying to staff — Barthel said she began to mellow. She joined a faith-based program called JOY, which stands for Journey of Years, and began teaching a Bible class. In 2013, she became an ordained minister and is now enrolled in correspondence classes at Jacksonville Theological Seminary.

According to her prison disciplinary record, it's been more than five years since she's been cited for a rule violation.

Asked what she wants a judge to consider before resentencing her, Bartel said she hopes to convey that she's undergone a "radical change."

"I would really like them to talk about the truth, that at 38, I no longer think like a 17-year-old," she said.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

     
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