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Robert James Jefferson, a St. Paul gang member sentenced to life in prison for a fatal 1994 firebombing he committed as a teenager, hoped for judicial relief after the U.S. Supreme Court barred mandatory life sentences for juveniles in 2012.

Last year, a federal judge reduced Jefferson's sentence — from life to 50 years — for the crime, which killed five young St. Paul siblings, and on Monday a federal appellate court rejected his appeal for a far shorter sentence.

Eighth Circuit Judge James Loken wrote that Jefferson's new sentence appropriately weighed his youth at the time of the murders with his rehabilitation and his "continued refusal to accept responsibility for the murders."

Last year, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis made Jefferson's sentence the first federal sentence reduced in Minnesota since the Supreme Court ruling in Miller vs. Alabama. But Jefferson, now 38, later challenged that ruling, calling 50 years a "de facto life sentence."

Citing the Supreme Court's decision, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office called Monday's ruling on Jefferson's sentence "a perfectly appropriate and reasonable result."

Jefferson was indicted in 1997 along with 20 other members of the St. Paul-based 6-0 Tres gang in a case that charged the gang with trafficking cocaine to the Twin Cities from California. His most serious conviction, after a six-week trial, was on charges that he and an accomplice threw Molotov cocktails at the St. Paul home of fellow gang member Andre Coppage to retaliate for cooperating with authorities in a murder case.

The ensuing fire killed five of Coppage's siblings: brothers Nicheba, 11, Nicos, 7, and Niarte, 4, and his sisters Nikia, 8, and Myeka, 2.

Jefferson has maintained his innocence in the murders and turned down a plea deal, refusing to testify against Robert G. "Buster" Jefferson, his half-brother and one of the gang's founders.

'Impressionable young man'

Surveillance footage placed Jefferson and a cousin, Willie Hart, then 13, near the Coppage home soon after the fire started. Jefferson was also convicted of additional charges that included conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine, and attempted murder and assault in connection with the drive-by shootings of a drug debtor and bystander.

Jefferson's attorney, Mark Larsen, said Monday that they were disappointed by the appellate ruling and are exploring appeals options. Jefferson had asked for a three-year sentence.

"This was a very impressionable young man at the time who followed the lead of his elder half-brother who fell in with the wrong crew," Larsen said.

Jefferson would be 62 if he lives out his term. Larsen said he suffers from juvenile-onset diabetes.

At the time of Jefferson's resentencing, Davis read from a 24-page legal analysis, something Larsen commended for being "exhaustive." In it, Davis cited evidence that Jefferson was sexually assaulted by a relative at a young age and that he was vulnerable to peer pressure at the time of the murders.

He also recognized a spotless disciplinary record while in prison, and a strong work and educational record. But, Davis said, Jefferson "has not accepted full responsibility for his actions" in connection with the children's deaths and downplayed his role in other convictions.

Loken wrote Monday that Davis properly reviewed evidence of Jefferson's post-sentencing rehabilitation and that he also gave significant weight to "the extreme severity of Jefferson's crimes."

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755

Twitter: @smontemayor