Friday, November 19, 2004
Son Who Murdered His Mother Gets 6 1/2 Years
By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
A man who killed his 71-year-old mother and burned her body at Laguna Pueblo got 6 1/2 years for his crime Thursday, even with judicial rulings that increased his prison time.
But a rueful U.S. District Judge Bruce D. Black said at the emotional hearing that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision precluded him from imposing a heftier sentence he believed was richly deserved in the case of Louis P. Romero.
Romero had admitted killing his mother, Maria Sophia Romero, with whom he lived, and burning her body in a rage fueled by drugs and alcohol on Jan. 5. Romero pleaded guilty in July to involuntary manslaughter, insisting that the death from striking her was an accident.
Prosecutors sought to increase Romero's time based on his extensive history of arrests and convictions in tribal, state and federal court for drunken driving, assault and criminal sexual penetration.
They also said his sentence should be lengthened for obstructing justice by burning the body and her eyeglasses, concealing the body for days and for lying to tribal and federal agents investigating the woman's disappearance.
But with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Blakely v. Washington, handed down just days before Romero's plea, the federal sentencing scheme was thrown into limbo.
Blakely said any aggravating factors that serve to increase a criminal defendant's sentence must be admitted by the accused or proved to a jury. Sentencing judges, the high court said, could not make those findings.
Black increased Romero's criminal history category in the complex calculus after conducting a lengthy exchange with Romero's attorney, assistant federal defender John Butcher. He said the guidelines failed to adequately represent the seriousness of Romero's past conduct or the likelihood of future offenses.
"These things keep happening over and over... The point is he's got a history of violent behavior," Black said.
But Black said Blakely tied his hands with regard to the obstruction of justice enhancement urged by Department of Justice attorney Jerry Massie.
By contrast to the relatively short sentence imposed on Romero, Black noted that a fellow federal district judge in New Mexico earlier this week sentenced a 29-year-old mother of three, Eva Palma Atencio, to life in prison without parole for being a participant in a marijuana case in which she possessed a handgun.
He also took note of the 55-year mandatory minimum sentence imposed Wednesday on a first offender in a marijuana case by U.S. District Paul Cassell of Utah. The offender was convicted of drug trafficking and weapons charges. Cassell decried the sentence as "unjust, cruel and even irrational" but said Congress had tied his hands.
John M. Romero, the defendant's brother, spoke eloquently to his brother and the court. He thanked prosecutors and law enforcement and rebuked his brother for blaming alcohol, depression and broken bones for his deeds. "You blamed everything except yourself," he said. "You were offered help at various times and you chose not to accept it."
He remembered his mother's daily trips to the elder center and frequent trips to play bingo. Born in Isleta, she had married a man from Laguna and been adopted by that pueblo but continued to perform tribal duties at her native pueblo, he said.
"She was always there to encourage us when times got tough," he said. "When we were hungry, she fed us ... When we did something good, she patted us on the back."
At sentencing Thursday, Louis Romero took responsibility.
"I was raised in a home filled with love," he said. "They went without so I could have more."
He apologized to the judge for making him have to put a price on crimes such as his.
"There's nothing left to say except I'm sorry. Never in my strangest dreams, of which there have been many, would I have imagined (this)."
Louis Romero could appeal Black's ruling on his criminal history, which might invite prosecutors to appeal his decision on the obstruction of justice charge.
"And I frankly hope I'm reversed on that," he said.