FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Shortly after Riley Briones Jr. arrived in federal prison, he cut his long, braided hair in a symbolic death of his old self.
As a leader of a violent gang and just shy of 18, Briones drove the getaway car in a robbery turned deadly on the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Community outside Phoenix in 1994. He was convicted of murder and given a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
In prison, he has been baptized a Christian, ministers to other inmates who call him Brother Briones, got his GED and has a spotless disciplinary record, his attorneys say in their latest bid to get the now 45-year-old’s sentence cut short.
“He’s clearly on the side of the line where he should be walking free,” said his attorney, Easha Anand.
The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for that possibility with a 2012 ruling that said only the rare, irredeemable juvenile offender should serve life in prison. Over the past decade, most of the 39 defendants in federal cases who received that sentence have gotten a reprieve and are serving far fewer years behind bars.
Briones is among those whose life sentences have been upheld. His attorneys attorneys recently petitioned the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to give Briones another chance to reduce it.
At the same time, more than 60 legal experts and scholars have asked the federal government to cap sentences for juvenile offenders at 30 years, create a committee to review life sentences in the future and reconsider its stance in Briones’ case.
Prosecutors in Briones’ case have until May to respond to the latest petition. They’ve previously acknowledged he’s improved in prison and ultimately expressed remorse but say that’s not worthy of early release because he has minimized his role in the “Eastside Crips Rolling 30s” and its crimes that terrorized Salt River amid a surge of gang violence on Native American reservations in the 1990s.
Briones’ prison sentence started in 1997 after he was convicted in the death of Brian Patrick Lindsay, a Northern Arizona University student who was home for the summer and working a solo shift at a Subway restaurant.
Briones drove four other gang members to the restaurant on May 15, 1994, and waited outside. Lindsay was preparing sandwiches when one of the gang members went outside to talk to Briones, came back inside and shot Lindsay in the face. The shooter pumped more bullets into Lindsay as he lay on the floor.
The gang took the food and a bank bag with $100.
Prosecutors said the murder was the most egregious of the violent crimes that Briones helped plot and carry out on the reservation about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Phoenix. But there were others that demonstrated a “murderous, unrepentant and unapologetic attitude,” they said, including drive-by shootings and fires set at rival gang members’ homes.
Briones also was convicted of arson, tampering with a witness and assault with a dangerous weapon. Three of his co-defendants in Lindsay’s death were sentenced to life in prison. One cooperated with authorities and received a lesser term.
Because Briones was a juvenile at the time of the murder, he was eligible for a resentence after the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama. It was part of a series of cases in which the court found minors should be treated differently from adults, partly because of a lack of maturity.
The February letter seeking reform from the Justice Department pointed to statistics that show the median sentence for adults convicted of murder in the federal system is 20 years — nearly half the median for the juvenile offenders. The agency did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Briones’ case has ping-ponged through courts as laws changed regarding juvenile offenders. A three-judge 9th Circuit panel most recently ruled against Briones, who is enrolled San Carlos Apache and Salt River Pima-Maricopa. The full court could reconsider.
Emails and a phone message left for Lindsay’s parents were not returned. In a letter to the court during Briones’ 2016 resentencing, Sharyn and Brian Lindsay said the passing of time has done little to mend their hearts.
“Isn’t a lifetime without our son enough without having to go through another court proceeding?” they wrote.
They were in the courtroom during the trial when prosecutors played the 911 recording in which Lindsay told dispatchers through a mouthful of blood that he had been shot.
“I can still almost hear that tape,” Paul Charlton, one of the prosecutors at the time, recently told The Associated Press. “And if you had been through that trial, if you had seen the callous and remorseless way in which these individuals faced the evidence against them and their lack of remorse at that time, most people would be as I remain today, unsympathetic to Mr. Briones’ arguments.”
Bennit Hayes, who served time with Briones at the federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, said he believes Briones is a changed man. He said Briones studied intently, worked hard and encouraged others to lead better lives.
“He was the light in the candle that I put up against everything else going forward,” said Hayes, whose sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2016.
Briones now is at the federal prison in metropolitan Phoenix, near Carmen Briones’ home on the Salt River reservation. She said they keep in contact but haven’t seen each other since last May because of pandemic restrictions.
Releasing Riley Briones from prison would mean they could be a family in a more meaningful way, she said. But whatever the 9th Circuit decides, she said it won’t change who her husband has become.
“He’s still going to continue wherever he’s at to minister, to mentor, to be a positive example and give guidance to those who he has contact with,” said Carmen Briones, who is Pascua Yaqui. “We’ve had enough appeals come and go that … wisdom would tell you just pray and see what happens.”
Fonseca covers Indigenous communities on the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP