Damien Riley, who was 15 when he fatally shot a Baton Rouge comic-book store owner during a 1994 robbery of the Highland Road store, was sentenced again Monday to life in prison — but this time with the possibility of parole.
Riley's attorney said a parole board hearing could come as early as 2019.
Riley, 39, was previously sentenced in 1996 to an automatic term of life behind bars without parole in the killing of 41-year-old Michael Kleban, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that automatic life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional
The high court said such sentences should be reserved for the worst of the worst juvenile offenders, those whose crimes demonstrate "irreparable corruption."
"This court cannot say this defendant is irreparably corrupt or the worst of the worst," state District Judge Richard Anderson said Monday in resentencing Riley to life with parole in the Dec. 2, 1994, slaying of Kleban at his Legends Comics and Sports Cards.
Kleban, a Lafayette native and Baton Rouge resident, was shot in the back of the head.
The judge described the killing as both horrible and "a very selfish and stupid act of a 15-year-old."
More than 23 years ago, 15-year-old Damien Riley browsed through the Legends Comics and Sports Cards store on Highland Road, then aimed his gu…
Kleban's sister, Cathy Kleban Lanoux, was in Anderson's courtroom for the ruling and expressed disappointment with it afterward.
"It's a shame," she said with East Baton Rouge Parish First Assistant District Attorney Tracey Barbera standing next to her. "If he gets out on parole, I hope he proves he can be a good man."
If Riley does so, Lanoux added, "I can live with this."
Riley's overjoyed mother, Melvina Jones, struggled to find the right words outside Anderson's 19th Judicial District courtroom.
"Happy. Speechless. Blessed. Thankful. Everything!" she said.
Riley's attorney, Mummi Ibrahim, said Anderson followed the Supreme Court's dictate and made the correct decision.
"The state wasn't able to make a case that Damien is the worst of the worst," she said. "It's not worth throwing a whole other life away."
Prosecutors in Louisiana can still pursue life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers that they consider irreparably corrupt or the worst of the worst. In Riley's case, prosecutors again sought a term of life without parole.
For those found not to be so corrupt by a judge, state law allows them a chance at a parole hearing after they've spent 25 years in jail.
In his ruling Monday, Anderson noted that Riley completed his high school education while behind bars and achieved the highest level of trusty status in prison. An Angola warden described Riley as a low risk to reoffend, the judge said.
"While we respect Judge Anderson's decision and the law with which he must comply, Damien Riley's potential release in 2019 will be a harsh reality to face," said Barbera, the prosecutor. "He will be 41 years old — the same age Michael was when Riley killed him. The law has given him a second chance to experience a life that he intentionally took from an innocent, defenseless man."
Police arrested Riley, who was 11 days shy of his 16th birthday, within minutes of the crime. He was walking a few blocks away from Kleban's store. Investigators reported recovering about $450 stuffed in both ends of a culvert just a few feet from where an officer stopped Riley. They also reported picking up about $50 in a trail leading from the store.
Riley admitted what he had done and led detectives to the pistol that he threw into Bayou Fountain. He told them he paid $20 for the gun and one bullet.
An East Baton Rouge Parish jury convicted Riley of second-degree murder by an 11-1 vote, but sent a note to then-state District Judge Curtis Calloway asking for a sentence of less than mandatory life in prison for the teenager — something the judge could not do under the law at that time. The jury also requested that Riley be given "any and all rehabilitation opportunities provided by the state of Louisiana."
In its 2012 ruling in an Alabama case, the Supreme Court said convicted juvenile killers are entitled to hearings to attempt to show they are capable of reform. Several years later in a decades-old East Baton Rouge Parish case involving the killing of a sheriff's deputy by a teen, the high court said its 2012 applied retroactively to all juveniles previously given automatic life sentences.
Riley's court-mandated hearing took place in October.