ST. JOSEPH — A Berrien County judge ruled Friday that Christopher Tobar, who currently is serving life in prison without parole, is not irreparably corrupt, is capable of change, and should be re-sentenced.
That was good news for Tobar, who attended court by video from a state prison and learned that he will have a chance to some day be free.
With everyone attending court wearing face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, Berrien County Trial Court Judge Gary Bruce read aloud his 14-page ruling denying the prosecution’s motion to re-sentence Tobar to life without parole.
At an earlier hearing, Berrien Assistant Prosecutor Amy Byrd had fought for the prosecution’s motion while Sofia Nelson from the State Appellate Defenders Office argued for Tobar to be re-sentenced to a term of years.
His re-sentencing is set for May 26 at 1:30 p.m.
Tobar, now 44, was 17 when, on Jan. 30, 1993, he shot and killed Paries Cummings as she walked alone at around 2:30 a.m. along Clay Street in Benton Harbor.
Tobar was one of four people in a vehicle when he and another person exited the vehicle carrying sawed-off shotguns, and ordered Paries to lay face down on the ground. Seconds after the other person shot at a passer-by, but missed, Tobar fatally shot Paries, 33.
Tobar was convicted of first-degree felony murder and was sentenced to life without parole, the mandatory penalty for that crime in Michigan.
But the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 2012 case of Miller vs. Alabama, ruled that mandatory, automatic life without parole for a juvenile is unconstitutional because a juvenile’s brain is not fully developed. The remedy is for a judge to have the discretion to sentence to life without parole or some term of years.
In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled the Miller decision retroactive, so courts in Michigan had to dust off their juvie-lifer cases for review. Prosecutors could file a motion for a Miller hearing, in which the prosecution could fight for a sentence of life without parole while defense lawyers could fight for a term of years.
Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic filed Miller motions in several cases, including Tobar’s. His Miller hearing was conducted by Judge Bruce in February.
Factors a judge must consider in a Miller hearing, besides the facts of the case, include the defendant’s history as a youth, childhood and home life, family history, mental health issues, school history and general relative maturity of the inmate as a youth. Conduct in prison can also be considered.
The sentence of life without parole should be reserved for the rare juvenile who is found to be irreparably corrupt, the Supreme Court said.
In announcing his decision Friday, Bruce said based on testimony during Tobar’s Miller hearing, the prefrontal cortex of his brain, which controls the decision-making function of the brain, was not fully developed, leaving him subject to impulse and limiting his ability to make decisions during a stressful situation.
Further, the judge said, Tobar had experienced severe childhood trauma, had consumed alcohol prior to his actions the night of the killing, was susceptible to peer influence and displayed the “hallmark features of youth” as defined by the Miller decision.
At Tobar’s Miller hearing, Michael Dannefell, a sheriff’s deputy who was on loan to the prosecutor’s office to conduct background investigations on Berrien’s juvenile-lifers, testified that Tobar’s prison record is relatively positive and that he had the “worst childhood” and least prison misconducts of any of the cases he’d investigated.
Tobar’s sister, Alethea Tobar, testified at his hearing that he has never denied his guilt and has said that he is sorry for his actions in 1993. Accepting responsibility and showing genuine remorse are factors in a Miller hearing.
Testifying himself at his Miller hearing in February, Tobar told the court that his childhood was characterized by frequent moves, hunger, lack of proper or clean clothing, lack of heat and electricity, cockroach infestations and other deplorable conditions.
He said he’d witnessed a man hold a gun to his mother’s head while she was holding a baby, and that at age 9 or 10, he had witnessed a man shot in the face at close range on their front porch.
Based on testimony, Judge Bruce said, Tobar was the youngest person in the car the night of the killing, and had gotten out of the car and pointed a gun at Paries Cummings because another person in the car “told me to.”
One doctor testified that Tobar’s childhood trauma was some of the worst she’d heard of and that, in her opinion, he not only is capable of rehabilitation, he has been rehabilitated.
“To summarize, the defendant’s actions of Jan. 30, 1993, were a prime example of immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate the risks and consequences,” the judge read from his ruling. “It was … a runaway train.”
Bruce said after considering all the factors and testimony on both sides, he could not conclude that Tobar is one of those “rare offender(s) whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,” and believes, based on the law, he should be re-sentenced.