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​Brother Released From Prison Over Murder But Sibling Remains Inside

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​Brother Released From Prison Over Murder But Sibling Remains Inside

Two brothers, one murder, two life sentences...but one of them has just been released. What's more, the brother that has tasted freedom for the first time in 30 years is the one who actually committed the murder.

To understand the legal wrangling of the case, the BBC first headed back to the early '80s, to Pennsylvania and introduced the story of the Maldonado brothers. Sammy was 18 on August 13, 1980, David just 17. The last part is a fact that would be crucial come the end of the day. They did what plenty of kids in their northern Philadelphia suburb did on hot summer days: they went down to the creek with a box of cheap booze and a couple of joints.

There they befriended another few teenagers, swapped some beers for some pot and got themselves nice and drunk. Emboldened by the drink and drugs, they decided to run off with a box belonging to the other kids, which they presumed to be filled with valuables. Sammy took it and turned heel, with one of the kids - Steven Monahan - in hot pursuit. Behind them both came David, carrying a steak knife that he had also swiped.

When Steven caught Sammy, David jumped on Steven's back and plunged the knife into his shoulders, severing an aorta. The brothers made off and managed to get back to the car that they had arrived in. David knew then that he had killed Steven.

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Both, however, were tried for second degree murder, both convicted and both sent to jail on life sentences without parole as was mandatory in Pennsylvania at the time. The sentencing judge was not allowed to influence the sentencing, but remarked that, given the chance, he would not have imposed such long tariffs.

For the next 37 years, they lived side by side in prison. That was all to change, however, thanks to a US Supreme Court ruling that passed in 2016.

US Supreme Court
US Supreme Court

The highest court in the States declared in the case of Miller v Alabama in 2012 that life sentences were unconstitutional when applied to minors, i.e. those under the age of 18 when they committed their crime. A further four years on, in 2016, it decided that the ruling in Miller v Alabama should be backdated to all those currently serving, sending hundreds if not thousands of prisoners up for release.

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One such prisoner was David Maldonado. Despite the fact that it was he, rather than his brother, Sammy, who actually stabbed Steven Monahan, David was the younger at the time and thus became eligible for release. In May, he became a free man, while his brother remains in jail.

The Supreme Court decision hinged on the question of when a person becomes responsible for their actions. Eighteen is the arbitrary age line drawn at which maturity is reached and defendants can be tried as adults, but in truth scientists remain unsure that the human brain is fully developed by the age of 18.

Prison exterior
Prison exterior

Credit: Creative Commons

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"The brain continues to change throughout our entire lifetime, but there are massive changes still happening into the 20s," says BJ Casey of Yale University's Fundamentals of the Adolescent Brain laboratory.

Laurence Steinberg of Temple University agrees with him, saying: "It's quite clear that, at least in the United States, we choose our legal boundaries for reasons other than scientific ones. If you're looking for a boundary that's an answer to the question, 'When do people stop maturing?'. Eighteen is clearly too young."

Sammy is still waiting for a potential change in law that could see him released with his brother, and he is not the only one. Luis Noel Cruz is currently fighting for release under the Miller v Alabama decision for a crime that he committed while he was 18-and-a-half years old. Should he win, then it would open the door for Sammy's case to be reinvestigated.

As for David, he is on the outside and doing well. He's working in the parks department in Philadelphia, he's on the hunt for an apartment and rebuilding his life. At the same time, he is sending money back to his brother on the inside. He hopes that he'll be able to join him soon.

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"I take responsibility for what I did. I shouldn't have done what I did. [The victim] didn't deserve what I did," says David.

"If you let me out and I'm the one who did it and you trust me to be out here, I don't see why you can't trust [Sammy]. He didn't do nothing."

Words: Mike Meehall Wood

Featured Image Credit: Creative Commons

Topics: Police, Murder, Prison, US

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