A Chicago man was resentenced on Tuesday to serve 25 years in prison for a murder he committed at age 16, more than a year after the Illinois Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in his case triggered additional sentencing protections for juvenile offenders serving mandatory prison terms of more than 40 years.
The new sentence in Dimitri Buffer’s case was handed down in person at Cook County’s Leighton Criminal Courthouse after months of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Buffer’s case is among a series of court rulings and laws passed across the nation that have allowed for the resentencing of certain young people serving lengthy prison terms. A growing body of research indicates that the human brain, in particular the parts that manage decision-making, continues to develop into one’s early 20s, leading courts and legislatures to wrestle with how to treat young people convicted of serious crimes.
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The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Buffer’s case that a mandatory sentence of more than 40 years for a juvenile was equivalent to a life sentence. Judges in Illinois must now consider an array of mitigating factors related to a defendant’s youth in sentencing decisions while Buffer and others like him are eligible to be resentenced.
Buffer was convicted in 2010 of shooting into a vehicle on Chicago’s South Side, killing 25-year-old Jessica Bazan. Prosecutors argued he mistakenly believed the car belonged to a gang rival. During the resentencing hearing in February, Cook County Circuit Judge Thaddeus Wilson recalled fielding questions from jurors about why such a young person was facing trial in adult court and acknowledged the heavy weight of the case given Buffer’s age.
Jurors found Buffer guilty and Wilson sentenced him to 50 years in prison, 25 years for the murder and another mandatory 25 years for committing the crime with a firearm.
In his lengthy and at times emotional ruling Tuesday, Wilson acknowledged that he had settled on the new sentence just moments before he took the stand.
“We should be concerned about how long you have to spend in prison for what you did, despite the fact that you were so willing to give someone else a death sentence,” Wilson said to Buffer.
Buffer, now 27, will be eligible for release from prison in his early 40s instead of his late 60s.
Wilson recalled that Buffer had rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a 20-year sentence, which indicated to the judge that the teen didn’t fully grasp how much prison time he could be facing.
“It weighs heavy on me as the court to see someone who doesn’t understand the gravity of what they’re doing and what a case and a trial is all about, and what they’re really risking,” Wilson said.
Wilson declined to impose the previously mandatory firearm enhancement, noting in his decision that he had long taken issue with the limited discretion the mandatory minimum sentence afforded judges. (A law passed in 2016 made firearm enhancements discretionary in cases involving juveniles, lowering Buffer’s minimum potential sentence to 20 years.)
At the resentencing hearing this February, defense attorneys argued Buffer should be given the minimum possible sentence of 20 years, while prosecutors advocated for the original 50 years in prison.
Public Defender Christopher Anderson said Buffer showed the potential for rehabilitation.
“He killed a person he didn’t even want to kill, caused harm he didn’t even want to harm,” Anderson said, noting that had Buffer been two months younger the case would have remained in the juvenile court system. “It was reckless.”
Assistant State’s Attorney Jose Villarreal read statements from a member of Bazan’s family, who said the family continued to struggle with the enormous loss and disagreed with the state supreme court’s decision requiring the resentencing.
“He was 16, but was he really?” Villarreal said. “He was a sophisticated 16-year-old.”
At least one other juvenile offender has been resentenced since the state’s highest court issued its decision in Buffer’s case. Benard McKinley, convicted of murder and originally sentenced to 100 years in prison for a shooting outside a Chicago public park, was resentenced to serve 39 years in prison by Judge Kenneth Wadas last year.