Ruling on juvenile sentencing spawns questions in Vega case

Published 11:42 am Monday, July 9, 2012

If 15-year-old Tyla Vega is found guilty of murder next month, Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick will have to break the law to sentence her.

In a 5-4 ruling June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws in Mississippi and 28 other states that impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on convicted juvenile murder defendants.

“Until the Legislature meets and amends the law, we’re stuck with the statute we have that makes a life sentence mandatory for murder,” District Attorney Ricky Smith said.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Vega’s trial is set for Aug. 20, and with no special session of the Legislature in sight, she will automatically be granted appeal if she is found guilty because an illegal sentence had been imposed, Smith said.

Vega’s attorney, Marshall Sanders, did not return calls for comment.

The opportunity for the Legislature to re-examine the punishment for murder could bring an end to the disparity between sentences for murder and manslaughter, Smith said. Under current law, murder is punishable only by life in prison. Manslaughter is punishable by up to 20 years in prison with the possibility of parole and time shaved off for good behavior.

“It makes it difficult to try to talk a family into agreeing to plea the person who killed their love one,” Smith said.

Judges and juries can still impose life sentences as long as all mitigating circumstances, such as the juvenile’s upbringing, are taken into account, but a concurring opinion by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer suggests the country might consider eliminating mandatory life sentences for juveniles.

The “question remains open whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of life without parole upon a juvenile,” Breyer wrote.

Vega was indicted in July 2011 for murder following the May 2, 2011, death of her stepmother, 32-year-old Michelle Vega, at the family home at 100 Jones Road. Michelle Vega was shot in the face, officials said, and Tyla Vega, then a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Vicksburg Junior High School, was seen driving away in the family’s vehicle minutes before Michelle Vega’s body was found.

She was arrested in Greenville six days later.

Vega was certified to be tried as an adult and held without bond until a hearing in Warren County Circuit Court on Aug. 11, at which time Patrick ruled she be held in lieu of $75,000 bail.

Vega was released Oct. 26 to family members from Tallulah. On Dec. 5, her bond was revoked and she was returned to the Warren County Jail, where she remains.