Before a bailiff led Jonathan Santillan out of a Wake County courtroom on Tuesday to spend the rest of his life in prison, the teen’s attorney asked Judge Paul Gessner whether his client could hug his mother.
Santillan, 18, had been convicted four days earlier of two counts of first-degree murder and several other charges related to a violent morning in January two years ago that left a husband and wife dead inside their Garner-area duplex and their two sons orphaned.
For much of Tuesday morning, Santillan’s mother offered the judge an account of her son’s childhood – including details about suicide attempts, hospitalizations, witnessing shootings at a young age and a father who went missing – to make an appeal that her teenager have the possibility for parole.
Santillan’s mother said her son “went from a good little church boy to a very depressed child.” She urged the court to consider his youth.
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But Gessner gave Santillan the same prison sentence an adult would get for two murders: life in prison without possibility for parole.
Santillan’s attorney, Jeff Cutler, had argued that having no chance for parole “is a serious, and some would say, a cruel punishment for a juvenile.” He said he would appeal trial and sentence.
Gessner, who left the option of a hug up to the courtroom bailiffs, acknowledged Santillan’s struggles with mental illness but said he had no evidence that the 18-year-old standing in front of him “did not have the ability to appreciate the risks and consequences of his conduct.”
In addition to murder, Santillan also is convicted of burglary, conspiracy to commit burglary, possession of a firearm with an altered serial number and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to inflict serious injury, for his role in a gang fight that happened a month before the shootings.
Jose Samuel Flores Mendoza and his wife, Maria Saravia Mendoza, were found dead on Jan. 5, 2013, after gunmen sprayed gunfire throughout their Colonial Drive duplex near Garner.
The Mendozas’ younger son, Jacob, only 3 years old at the time, survived the violence and now lives with family members.
They also had an older son, Jorge, now 15, who was left to navigate life without his parents.
Santillan was 15 at the time of the Mendoza murders and thus was not eligible for capital punishment.
But because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling three years ago, Gessner had to consider evidence for and against the possibility of parole.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an automatic sentence of life with no possibility of parole was “cruel and unusual punishment” for people younger than 18 when the murder they were convicted of occurred.
Teens do not have fully developed brains, the justices explained, causing some to be at risk of a lack of impulse control. North Carolina and other states were forced to change laws because of that ruling, and that led to the hearing on Tuesday.
During those proceedings, relatives of the Mendozas described their loss. Jacob, the younger son who was found crying on top of his lifeless father after the gunfire subsided, has vivid memories of the violence and asks about it, they said.
The boy has told family members that a gun was pointed at him and the trigger pulled, but nothing happened.
Prosecutors contended during trial that one of the two guns used at the shooting jammed, and some of the ammunition found at the scene was not used as a result.
The sister of Maria Mendoza recounted hearing about the murders from investigators.
“How could this happen,” Julia Nativi recounted saying at the time. “They have no enemies.”
The Mendozas moved to this country from El Salvador in search of a better life. Both husband and wife worked at a Golden Corral restaurant not far from their home. They often worked different shifts so one could be home with the children, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said the Mendozas were unintended targets in a gang retaliation that brought Santillan and a cohort to the wrong address.
The shooters, prosecutors contend, went to the Mendoza home thinking they were at a duplex where a rival gang member lived. The gang member had moved out about a year earlier, and the Mendozas moved in afterward.
For about 45 minutes after the hearing, Gessner weighed impact statements from the Mendoza family with a fuller picture of Santillan from his mother.
Jonathan Santillan spent his early years in Houston in neighborhoods where violence was common.
For a while, Santillan was moving between Houston, where his father’s family was, and Raleigh, where his mother lived.
Santillan’s father, who had been in prison in Texas, disappeared before Santillan started school, and family members speculated a drug cartel had killed him.
When Santillan was 9, a counselor told his mother that her son slept with a knife under his bed. “I guess because of what happened with his father,” the mother said.
David Saacks, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, urged the judge to hand down a sentence with no possibility for parole.