Convicted teen killer denied break on 50-year-to-life prison term

Concluding that the juvenile justice system had failed to rehabilitate him, a state court panel has refused to overturn the 50-year-to-life prison term imposed on a convicted 15-year-old midstate killer.

Jacquez Brown

Jacquez Brown

The Superior Court rejected arguments by Jacquez Davon Brown that his conviction by a York County jury of first-degree murder was unjustified and that his prison sentence is too harsh.

Brown claimed he fired in self-defense while 19-year-old Anthony Wasilewski had him in a head lock during a July 2011 fight with on East Princess Street in York. The fight began when Wasilewski accused Brown of stealing his cell phone.

However, as Judge Paula Francisco Ott noted in the state court's opinion, two witnesses testified that Brown shot Wasilewski as Wasilewski was kneeling, and kept firing as he walked away from the stricken man. Wasilewski was shot three times. The fatal bullet struck Wasilewski in the lower back, and was fired from a distance of one to three feet, the judge wrote.

Ott concluded the evidence "shows that Brown was not in a head lock at the time he fired any shot at the victim...Brown was no longer under any threat of death or serious bodily injury when he fired the gun."

"He could have retreated safely, rather than pulling the trigger," the judge added.

Brown, who was 17 when he was convicted of first-degree murder in November 2013, was not eligible for an automatic life prison sentence because he was younger than 18 at the time of the slaying. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment to impose automatic sentences of life without parole on juvenile killers.

However, the law states that juvenile murderers must serve at last 35 years behind bars on first-degree homicide convictions, and judges do have the power to impose life prison terms if they deem the circumstances warrant such dire penalties.

In his appeal, Brown argued that he should have received a 35-year minimum prison term instead of the penalty county Judge Richard K. Renn imposed when he found Brown "has to be segregated from society for a significant period of time."

Ott cited Renn's conclusion that Brown had not reformed while in the juvenile justice system after being adjudicated on a simple assault charge at age 13 for shooting a person in the face with a BB gun.

"The commission of a first-degree murder so quickly after his first criminal episode does not bespeak a successful rehabilitation process," Ott wrote.

Source: PennLive

Big Win in Florida for Juveniles Serving Life

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) - Though the juvenile committed a murder in the same criminal episode as nonhomicide transgressions, it was unconstitutional to impose a life sentence on the latter crimes, the Florida Supreme Court ruled.

     The decision comes five years since the U.S. Supreme Court threw out life sentences for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses with the decision Graham v. Florida.
     Florida's 2nd, 3rd and 4th District Courts of Appeal have read Graham, however, as creating a homicide-case exception to this categorical rule, meaning that judges can sentence juveniles to life without parole for a nonhomicide offense if the juvenile also committed a homicide in the same criminal episode.
     In the case at hand, the 3rd District found that Torrence Lawton deserved a life sentence without parole for armed robbery and attempted murder, crimes he committed as a juvenile, because Lawton also committed a homicide in the same criminal episode.
     The Florida Supreme Court reversed last week, finding "that Graham's categorical rule leaves no room for the homicide-case exception."
     Florida is one of several states undergoing a transformation in the courts to redefine sentencing laws for juveniles.
     Three years ago, Miller v. Alabama made it unconstitutional for courts to impose mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile murderers.Mi
     And just last month, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the unconstitutionality of the life sentences applies retroactively to the juvenile offenders.
     Lawton will be resentenced for his conviction for attempted first-degree murder with a firearm and arm robbery with a firearm in conformance with the new legislation.
     The unsigned April 9 ruling concludes with a note of disapproval for the 2nd District's decisions in two other cases, and the 4th District's decision in another case, "to the extent those decisions recognize a homicide-case exception to Graham." 

Juvenile Justice in America: We Can Do Better | Cara H. Drinan

The juvenile court was invented in Illinois in 1899. Soon thereafter, recognizing that youthful offenders often had diminished culpability and unique potential for rehabilitation, every state in the Union created its own juvenile court system. Developed nations around the world emulated the American model of juvenile justice.

Today the United States is an international outlier in the severity of its juvenile sentencing practices. Until 2005, the United States was the only developed country that subjected children to the death penalty, and today we are the only nation that employs juvenile life without parole. The Pope, U.N. officials and human rights organizations have universally condemned the way the American criminal justice system treats children -- the most vulnerable members of society.

In recent years, there has been some improvement due to new (and overdue) Eighth Amendment rulings from the United States Supreme Court. In Graham v. Florida(2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Supreme Court significantly curtailed the extent to which states may employ juvenile life without parole.

Since those decisions, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming have abolished the practice of juvenile life without parole, while other states have precluded the sentence for certain categories of juveniles. West Virginia's legislation in response to Graham and Miller rethinks juvenile sentencing altogether, and California has passed a law providing a new parole protocol for youth serving extreme sentences. The Supreme Court of Florida, considered to be among the most punitive of all states, recently decided a handful of juvenile sentencing cases and held in favor of the juvenile petitioner in each instance. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly determined that children are different in the eyes of the Constitution; brain science tells us that children are less culpable and more amenable to rehabilitation; and some states are enacting laws that properly reflect both realities.

But there is much work to be done. Take Terrence Graham, with whom I correspond on a regular basis, for example. In 2003, when he was sixteen, Terrence and three other teens attempted to rob a barbeque restaurant in Jacksonville. He entered the restaurant through an unlocked back door at closing time, fled when the manager started yelling at them and left with no money. A Florida judge sentenced Terrence to life without parole for his involvement in that crime. After the Supreme Court struck down that sentence in 2010, Mr. Graham received a re-sentencing hearing and a new sentence of 25 years. Because of his time served to date, he will be released in 12 years at the age of 40 if, as he says, he can "make it out."

Like many young inmates serving lengthy sentences, Mr. Graham does not have access to educational or vocational opportunities. Occasionally, if he is lucky, he can visit the prison library, but for the most part, he is left to pass the hours with fellow inmates in the recreation pavilion where even a chess game can be a risky undertaking if he catches his opponent on a bad day. Mr. Graham witnessed another inmate's rape during his first days in prison, and he recently watched another young inmate be killed. He has spent time in solitary confinement, a practice prohibited by the U.N.more than 20 years ago and opposed by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Mr. Graham lives among mostly older inmates, many of whom are serving life sentences and have "nothing to lose." Each day is a quest to survive.

Spurred by neuroscience findings and the moral leadership of the United States Supreme Court, meaningful juvenile justice reform is underway. And yet, in some states, children as young as six can be transferred out of the juvenile justice system and into adult court without any judicial oversight. Once there, they may be sentenced without any regard for their youth and its mitigating attributes. Conditions of confinement for youthful inmates can be horrific. An ongoing lawsuit in Michiganalleges that youth inmates, housed with adults, have routinely been raped while prison officials turned a blind eye.

These are not practices befitting the nation that invented the juvenile court a little more than a century ago. If we are to remain the land of the free we can and we must do better by our children.

Life in Prison Without Parole Still Allowed for Convicted Juveniles in Iowa

The Iowa legislature has just passed a bill that would allow Iowa courts to continue sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

This is despite recent U.S. and state supreme court rulings that have challenged that.

Members with Iowa's ACLU have said they have several problems with the bill. They have also said they're considering legal action if a future court ruling does not address the issue.

Supporters of the bill have stated that they feel it offers uniformity.

The bill now heads to the desk of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.

Change rules on sentencing of juveniles

POSTED: Wednesday, April 8, 2015, 1:08 AM

By Nikki Grant and Robert Saleem Holbrook

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has started to limit the ways and circumstances under which states can impose the harshest punishments on children caught up in the criminal justice system.

In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court held that sentencing people under 18 to the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment. In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the court decided that children could be sentenced to life without parole only for homicide offenses; and in 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the court said children could not receive life without parole for any crime as a mandatory sentence.

There were almost 2,500 people sentenced as juveniles to life without parole before Miller was decided. More than 500 of these people were sentenced in Pennsylvania, more than in any other state.

Much of the rhetoric around children sentenced to die in prison focuses on their brain development; this science tends to show that children, still growing, are less culpable for their actions. The Supreme Court has affirmed a fact everyone knows: Young people change. But do people stop growing and learning and changing after making the transition from childhood to adulthood? Of course not.

When someone takes a life, one life ends and others are changed forever. A family and community lose a member, and if the responsible party is given a life-without-parole sentence, another family and community lose someone who will now be trapped in this terrible mistake and this tragic moment.

When people are condemned to either the death penalty or life without parole, the state is declaring that these people are irredeemable and disposable; not humans, but monsters.

The primary reason Pennsylvania has such a large number of juvenile lifers is the same reason it has the highest percentage (10 percent of the Pennsylvania prison population) of people sentenced to life without parole: Life without parole is a mandatory minimum sentence for first- and second-degree murder. Pennsylvania has more than 5,100 people sentenced to life without parole. These people will never receive a meaningful review of their sentences and, in the eyes of the state, will always be the same monster who was sentenced 10, 20, 30, or more years earlier.

Pennsylvania has also shown that it is unwilling to change the repressive policies that have brought us to this point. Forced to revise the sentencing statutes for juveniles convicted of murder in the wake of the Miller ruling, the legislature did the bare minimum, still allowing children to be sentenced to life without parole. Worse still, the scandal-ridden Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled, in Commonwealth v. Cunningham, that Miller is not retroactive, meaning that most of the 500 people serving this unconstitutional sentence have no recourse in the Pennsylvania courts.

Pennsylvania is not the only state going to extreme lengths to avoid merely taking a second look at the cases of people who were children when they were sentenced to life in prison. Louisiana is one of the four states that, like Pennsylvania, ruled Miller was not retroactive.

Louisiana had spent more than 30 years incarcerating George Toca, intending to keep him for life, until December. Then the Supreme Court decided to hear his case to determine whether Miller should be applied retroactively. Louisiana quickly gave Toca a deal, releasing him with "time served" to make the Supreme Court review moot. Interestingly, the court decided on March 23 to hear another case out of that state, Montgomery v. Louisiana, to decide on the retroactivity of Miller. Will Louisiana again opt to release one inmate rather than face the prospect of being responsible for resentencing thousands due to a landmark ruling?

We cannot change the injustice of our behemoth criminal justice system with litigation, legislation, and lawyers. Legislators and courts will continue to act politically and make the safe decision to treat people who harm others like monsters instead of looking at how to make our communities truly safe and strong.

In order to make a shift this radical in our statehouses and courts, we must come together and declare that human rights do not go away when people are incarcerated. Our communities cannot be safe without the resources to ensure that all have the things they need to sustain themselves.

We must change individually and collectively to realize a fuller understanding of our humanity.


Nikki Grant is the policy director of the Amistad Law Project, a West Philadelphia-based public-interest law center.

Robert Saleem Holbrook, a member of the Human Rights Coalition Advisory Board, is serving life without parole at State Correctional Institution - Greene, in Waynesburg, Pa. He was convicted of first-degree murder for his role in a fatal robbery.



Life sentence tossed for Arkansas man convicted as juvenile

April 9th, 201

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the life without parole prison sentence of a man who was a juvenile when he was convicted of attempted capital murder.

Under the ruling on the sentence given to Steven Wayne Bramlett, the case now goes back to a Jefferson County circuit court.

The 54-year-old Bramlett was 17 years old when he committed the crime. According to court records, prosecutors in Pope County filed a handful of charges against Bramlett including rape, kidnapping, robbery and attempted capital murder when he was arrested in 1979.

He pleaded guilty to attempted capital murder and the other charges were dropped. He was sentenced at the plea hearing to life in prison without parole.

A circuit court judge granted the state’s request for a summary judgement in 2012, denying Bramlett’s request to have his sentence converted to a term of years. According to court records, the circuit court asserted that Bramlett’s intent was to commit homicide and that the only thing that stopped the crime from reaching that level was “poor aim.”

“Should a person who intends to kill, acts upon that intention but is a poor shot be held less culpable than one who intends to kill, acts upon that intention but is a good shot?” the circuit court judge wrote in 2012.

The Arkansas Supreme Court agreed with Bramlett’s argument that the U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited life without parole sentences for juveniles who are convicted of a crime that is not a homicide. The opinion Thursday cited case law and definitions that require “the act to result in the death of a human being” to be defined as a homicide, regardless of intent.

“I think he had really strong case law in his corner,” said Laurent Sacharoff, a criminal law professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “Bramlett’s relief request remains the same, which is simply to be resentenced to a term of years, and depending on lower end of that sentence, he could be eligible for parole if that is granted.”

A spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, whose office argued the case on behalf of the state, said she is still deciding whether to file a request for a re-hearing. If that request is not made or is not granted by the court, the case will be remanded back to circuit court for scheduling in 18 days.

Bramlett argued in his 2012 brief that Arkansas law allows parole eligibility for juveniles who have served 15 years of a non-life sentence. The law was changed in the 2013 legislative session, but was not applied retroactively.

Alabama Supreme Court: Life Without Parole For Juveniles, Is Not Retroactive

Posted: Fri 4:19 PM, Mar 27, 2015

By: Press Release: AL Attorney General Luther Strange


Montgomery, AL Attorney General Luther Strange announced that the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the life without parole sentence of Jimmy Williams Jr. The Court thus held that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles in capital cases is not retroactive.

Williams was convicted of murder made capital because it was committed during a robbery. Williams was a juvenile when he committed this crime, and Alabama law at the time imposed a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

In 2012, after Williams was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that life without parole sentences cannot be mandatory for juvenile offenders. Williams asked the Alabama Supreme Court to consider whether this decision entitled him to a new sentencing hearing. Today, the Alabama Supreme Court held that Miller “does not apply retroactively to cases that became final before its pronouncement.” The U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller decision relates only to the procedure used to sentence juvenile offenders. It did not prohibit states from imposing life without parole sentences on juveniles convicted of capital murder.

For these reasons, the Alabama Supreme Court denied Williams’ request for a new sentencing hearing, concluding that his sentence is constitutional. As a result of today’s decision, any juveniles who were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole before the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama are not entitled to new sentencing hearings based on that decision.

The Attorney General’s Capital Litigation Division handled the case during the appeals process, and Solicitor General Andrew Brasher orally argued the case before the Alabama Supreme Court. Attorney General Strange commended Solicitor General Brasher and Assistant Attorney General Lauren Simpson for their successful work in this case. 


U.S. Looks Overseas for Human Rights Abuses and Ignores U.N. Report Criticizing Its Youth Detention Practices at Home

By Mishi Faruqee, Juvenile Justice Policy Strategist, ACLU at 12:21pm

Recently I visited a youth detention center in South Carolina. As I entered the facility, I saw a line of boys in jumpsuits march past with their arms behind their backs. The guard explained to me that they make the boys march to "help teach them discipline and structure."

Although I have visited numerous youth jails and prisons over the last 20 years, I am still amazed at how people who work in youth detention centers delude themselves. Young people, many who have experienced unspeakable trauma, come into these facilities in handcuffs and leg irons, are strip searched, and are put in cinder block cells – where sometimes they are physically restrained or locked in isolation for days as punishment – and somehow they are going to come out OK because they are trained to march in prison.

So it's not surprising that in a report released and presented this week to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Juan Mendez, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on torture, sharply criticized the U.S. model of youth detention where children are at "heightened risk of violence, abuse, and acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Even short periods of detention undermine a child's psychological and physical wellbeing. The report points out that children's healthy development requires developing emotional connections to caring adults, a requirement that most institutions consistently fail to meet.

The United State is the biggest jailer of children in the world. More than 67,000 unaccompanied children are locked up in our country's immigrant detention centers. An additional 60,000 children who come in conflict with the law are incarcerated in our juvenile jails or prisons – nearly two-thirds are held for non-violent offenses, including theft, drug possession, or skipping school. And thousands of more children are locked up in adult jails and prisons in the United States. Children of color are over-represented in detention, particularly among youth serving extreme sentences.

Notably, Mendez, who himself is a torture survivor, singles out the United States for being the only nation in the world that sentences children to die in prison. Although the Supreme Court recently banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles, there are approximately 2,500 individuals across the United States who are currently serving life-without-parole for crimes committed as children. In addition to life sentences, "sentences of extreme length have a disproportionate impact on children and cause physical and psychological harm that amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment."

About 40 percent of children are incarcerated in private facilities that are often euphemistically referred to as treatments centers, camps, or learning academies. The U.N. special rapporteur points out that these private institutions often avoid state oversight and regulation, which may lead to rampant abuse.

The report makes several key recommendations including eliminating juvenile life-without-parole sentences for children and the detention of immigrant children. There should be no use of restraints or solitary confinement under any circumstances. No children should be tried in adult court, and all children should be held in age-appropriate facilities.

In addition, because detention hampers the healthy development of children, the report recommends restricting detention to the shortest period of time possible and limiting it only to exceptional cases. In most cases, states should adopt non-custodial alternatives to detention. These community-based alternatives are not only better for children but cheaper and better for society as a whole.

Unfortunately, the U.S. delegation to the Human Rights Council failed to respond to Mr. Mendez report and preferred to highlight human rights concerns abroad. U.S. leadership on the international stage suffers when we decline to constructively engage and fully cooperate with international human rights bodies. As the U.S. seeks another term as member of the Human Rights Council, it should heed Mendez recommendations and live up to its commitments to uphold human rights at home and abroad.


Deal reached on parole for juvenile killers


  • By Matt Murphy
    State House News Service 

    Posted Jul. 15, 2014 @ 5:33 pm
    Updated Jul 15, 2014 at 5:36 PM 

    BOSTON -- House and Senate negotiators reached a deal Tuesday on sentencing reforms for juvenile murderers to establish a three-tiered system for parole eligibility after state and federal courts struck down life sentences without parole as unconstitutional.
    A six-member panel filed a compromise bill ( H 4307) on Tuesday afternoon that would make juveniles – aged 14 to 17 – convicted of first degree murder eligible for parole are serving 20 to 30 years of their life sentence in prison.
    In cases involving premeditation, juveniles would face 25 years to 30 years in prison before becoming parole eligible or a minimum of 30 years in murders with “extreme atrocity or cruelty.”
    “It reflects a compromise and the diversity of views in both bodies and I think it’s a reasonable place to be,” said Sen. William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat and Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee, who led negotiations for the Senate.
    The bill represents a blending of the approaches taken separately by the House and Senate, adopting Senate-backed sentencing guidelines for first degree murder and especially horrific slayings and incorporating the House’s preference for creating a separate category for premeditated murder.
    The conference committee elected not to include changes to the amount of time a convicted murderer would have to wait between parole hearings if they are denied early release, leaving the five-year waiting period untouched.
    “I think it’s the right outcome on the setback,” said Brownsberger, who originally proposed a 10-year waiting period before it was changed during debate in the Senate.
    The conference committee’s recommendations, which are not subject to amendment, will go first to the House.  Both branches have formal sessions scheduled for Wednesday
    “I expect it will be moved along quickly given all the things we need to do,” Brownsberger said.
    Rep. Christopher Markey, who led the House negotiating team, could not immediately be reached for comment.
    All six lawmakers on the conference committee signed off on the compromise. The committee also included Reps. Garrett Bradley (D-Hingham) and Bradford Hill (R-Ipswich) and Sens. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster) and Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester).
    Earlier in the session Senate Minority Tarr and Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat, filed legislation with 19 co-sponsors in the House and Senate seeking to set a mandatory prison period of 35 years served before a juvenile murderer could become parole eligible.
    The bill does not propose to make any sentencing changes for adults convicted of first or second degree murder.
    At the start of the year, there were 63 juveniles in the Massachusetts prison system serving life without parole.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 struck down life sentences without parole for juvenile murders on the grounds that they violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The state Supreme Judicial Court followed up that ruling on Christmas Eve 2013 with a decision that found life sentences for juvenile murderers in violation of the state’s constitutional prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment because there are neurological and psychological differences between juveniles and adults. The ruling overturned a 1996 statute that allowed juveniles 14 years or older charged with murder to be tried as an adult.
Following the court decisions, sentences in Massachusetts for juveniles convicted of murder defaulted to 15 years before becoming parole eligible.
Some activists and juvenile court judges, including the Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Youth, pushed for parole eligibility to remain at 15 years because of developmental differences between juvenile brains and adult brains and the potential for effective rehabilitation.

Teens Serving Life Without Parole: POV Documentary ‘15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story’

Originally posted July 23rd By JOHN DAVIS

We explore the practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole in the U.S. More than 2,500 inmates in America’s prison system are serving life terms for crimes committed as juveniles. We’ll talk with the filmmaker behind the POV (Point of View) documentary “15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story” which premieres August 4th on PBS. The film documents the story of one Tampa-area man charged with four back-to-back life sentences for his role in a string of robberies committed when he was 14 years old at the behest of his mother’s 24 year old crack dealer.

The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Graham v. Florida finds that life sentences for juveniles for crimes other than murder are unconstitutional, which could make Kenneth eligible for early release. Through Kenneth’s story, we’ll explore whether society is served by sentencing juveniles to life in prison and other revelations about our justice system.


Nadine Pequeneza, Director/Producer of POV Documentary ‘15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story”

Program Schedule on WGCU-TV:

  1. Thursday, August 7, 03:00 pm on WGCU WORLD 
    TV 30.2 
    Cable 201
     - READ MORE
  2. Saturday, August 9, 12:00 pm on WGCU WORLD 
    TV 30.2 
    Cable 201
     - READ MORE
  3. Sunday, August 10, 03:00 am on WGCU HD 
    TV 30.1 
    Cable 3 / 440
     - READ MORE

Michigan Supreme Court: Not so fast on resentencing juvenile lifers

Originally posted July 8th 2014 by Paul Egan 

Michigan juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole prior to the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama do not have to get new sentencing hearings, the Michigan Supreme Court said in a 4-3 opinion. / Jason Karas/Detroit Free Press

Michigan juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole prior to the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama do not have to get new sentencing hearings, the Michigan Supreme Court said in a 4-3 opinion. / Jason Karas/Detroit Free Press

LANSING — A U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes mandatory life sentences without parole unconstitutional for juveniles should not be applied retroactively, a divided Michigan Supreme Court said Tuesday in a ruling that brought joy to some families shattered by horrific crimes, but heartbreak to others.

Michigan juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole prior to the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama do not have to get new sentencing hearings, the court said in a 4-3 opinion.

The ruling is a defeat for more than 300 Michigan inmates serving mandatory life sentences without parole for murders committed when they were teenagers.

And it was a victory for Attorney General Bill Schuette, who argued that families who went through the sentencing hearings once should not be subjected to the same trauma a second time.

For survivors of Dave VanBogelen of Muskegon, who was bludgeoned to death by two teenagers in 1990, the ruling was an answered prayer.

“It was a brutal and heinous crime ... and they didn’t care,” said Amanda McGregor, 31, of Grand Haven, whose father’s two teenage killers are serving life without parole.

“The only time they cried was when they got life sentences. There wasn’t any remorse. They took my dad when I was 7 years old. My brother was 12. My mom had to raise us by herself. They don’t deserve to walk the same streets that my children and I do.”

McGregor’s father was 34 when two teenagers met him at a bar, lured him back to their Muskegon Heights apartment and then stabbed him to death after robbing him of $1,500 and his Ford Ranger pickup.

The 19-year-old stabbed him to death; his 16-year-old girlfriend hit him over the head with a bottle and helped clean up the mess.

The then-teen couple were sentencedin 1991.

McGregor’s brother, David VanBogelen, who carries his father’s name, said his family was not prepared to go through another sentencing.

“I’m glad it’s over,” VanBogelen said. “They took away from us something that can never be replaced. Their freedom is the least that they can give up for that. ... They don’t deserve another chance.”

But Amanda Jones of Grand Rapids, whose ex-husband Anthony Jones is serving a life sentence without parole for a 1979 Kalamazoo County killing committed when he was 17, said the decision is “heartbreaking.”

“He was not the actual shooter,” said Jones, who married Anthony Jones for a short time after he went to prison. “He’s been in prison for 35 years.”

Jones has changed and been rehabilitated during that time and “everyone deserves a second chance,” she said.

Though the ruling comes from the highest court in Michigan, it does not settle the question, since related legal fights continue at the federal level and a Michigan case is now before the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Markman said the U.S. Supreme Court did not make sentences to life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles. It only made automatic life sentences unconstitutional for juveniles and required a different sentencing procedure to be followed to determine whether such a sentence is appropriate.

Because the change mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court is only procedural, and it doesn’t alter the range of possible sentences, the ruling should not be applied retroactively, said Markman, who was joined by Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. and Justices Brian Zahra and David Viviano.

Justice Mary Beth Kelly wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Michael Cavanagh and Bridget McCormack.

Kelly said the U.S. Supreme Court did alter the range of sentences, because juveniles who could only get life without parole under the old system are now eligible for something less.

“Accordingly, we would hold that Miller applies retroactively under federal law,” Kelly wrote.

The decision broke mostly along partisan lines, with four GOP-nominated justices ruling against retroactivity. But Kelly, a former Wayne County Circuit Court judge who was nominated by Republicans, joined two Democratic nominees in writing the dissent.

One of the cases the justices considered was from 2006, when Raymond Carp, then 15, helped his half brother, Brandon Gorecki, then 22, murder May Ann McNeely, 43, in St. Clair County.

Gorecki delivered the fatal stab wounds, evidence showed. But Carp threw a mug at the woman and pulled the blinds closed while the killing happened.

Carp won’t get a new sentencing hearing based on Tuesday’s ruling.

Schuette, a Republican, said the ruling “should bring a measure of peace to the many families who struggled with the possibility of painful resentencing hearings for cases successfully prosecuted decades ago.”

Schuette has said many families of murder victims want the teenage killers locked up forever, as they were promised they would be at the time of sentencing.

For 67-year-old Patricia McLemore of Burton, whose son is serving a life sentence for a crime he committed when he was 16, the ruling was a devastating blow.

“I’m very disappointed,” McLemore said through tears. “(He) was just a child and really had no comprehension of (his) actions ... He just wants a second chance … and the fact that he didn’t actually commit the crime but was just an accessory — it shouldn’t be this way.”

Patrick McLemore and a 19-year-old broke into a Burton home to rob it. A 67-year-old man wound up beaten to death. Patrick said that when he entered the home, his co-defendant already had killed the man.

Still, Patrick got a life sentence in 2000 after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder. His co-defendant, Nathan Reid, got 37½ to 50 years after pleading no contest to a lesser murder charge.

McLemore said she understands the outrage and pain victims’ families experience when violent crimes happen. But she still doesn’t believe her son deserves to die in prison, saying he has matured a lot behind bars — earning a degree in small business management — and still has a lot to offer the world.

“I get both sides. That’s what’s so hard,” McLemore said. “I feel for them, and I feel for us.”

Patrick’s 22-year-old brother, Samuel Doyle II, said he believes his brother’s punishment is “just too harsh.”

“He was was definitely just a kid. He was a child. The human brain isn’t even developed (at 16),” Doyle said, noting Patrick “got a worse sentence than the actual murderer. Where’s the justice?”

Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, which filed a brief in the case, said the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to settle the issue, since seven states have differed with Michigan in finding that the Miller case is retroactive.

A separate case, about whether such juveniles are entitled to parole hearings, is now before the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Korobkin said.

The Michigan Catholic Conference expressed disappointment with the ruling.

“We call upon the Legislature to pass a measure that will allow for juveniles sentenced to a life term before the Miller decision to have the opportunity for a parole hearing at some point during their sentence,” the conference said in a news release.

“Our position is driven by the need to balance compassion and protection for victims with the opportunity for offenders to rehabilitate their lives, which should be the goal of the corrections system.”

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or


Despite SCOTUS Ban, 15 States Still Have Not Passed Laws Ending Mandatory Life Without Parole for Juveniles

Originally posted on June 25th 2014 by Steven Hsieh 

A juvenile offender mops the floor during his work program at Circleville Youth Center in Ohio. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

A juvenile offender mops the floor during his work program at Circleville Youth Center in Ohio. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

Exactly two years after the US Supreme Court ruled against mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, the majority of states affected by the ruling have not passed laws banning the practice, according to a report by the Sentencing Project.

The Supreme Court ruled five-to-four in Miller v. Arizona that mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for minors violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In her majority opinion, Justice Kagan cited research that found that “only a relatively small proportion of adolescents who experiment in risky or illegal activities develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior that persist into adulthood.”

Only thirteen of twenty-eight states that had locked up minors for life without a chance for release have passed laws to comply with the Court’s decision. Several of the states that amended their sentencing laws, however, set lengthy requirements that some juvenile advocates are still calling inhumane. For example, both Texas and Nebraska set new minimum sentences of forty years, practically guaranteeing that some juvenile offenders will spend the majority of their lives behind bars.

“It appears that many states are disregarding the spirit of the Court’s ruling. Of the states that have passed legislative responses to Miller, many replaced their laws with sentences that are as nearly as narrow-minded,” said Ashley Nellis, a senior analyst at the Sentencing Project, in a statement.

The Miller decision did not determine whether the estimated 2,000 prisoners already serving mandatory LWOP sentences would be eligible for re-sentencing. Ten of the twenty-eight affected states have addressed this issue, passing laws or issuing court decisions that apply Millerretroactively.

The Sentencing Project's report notes that states do not necessarily have to pass new legislation to comply with Miller, but 

States’ practices of sending children to die in prison puts the United States at odds with international standards. In fact, ours is the only nation in the world that sends minors to die in prison, and is one of few that refuses to sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which bans the practice.

(CORRECTION, 6/26/2014): An earlier version of this post suggested that states must pass legislation to comply with Miller. In fact, some states have ended mandatory life without parole for juveniles through litigation. The headline and first paragraph of this post have been updated for clarification.


Where Do You Think That Rage Came From

Originally posted June 11th By Beth Schwartzapfel

Last week, the Massachusetts Parole Board announced that Frederick Christian might go home. He would be one of the first people to be released based on the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling, in Miller v. Alabama, finding mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.

Courtesy of the Joe Donovan Project

Courtesy of the Joe Donovan Project

Christian was 17 when he was involved in a drug robbery that ended with the shooting deaths of two men. Now he is 37. In prison, he got his GED, enrolled in violence prevention programs, and converted to Islam. The five-times-a-day prayers, he said, “taught me discipline.” He has maintained a steady job cleaning the prison, gone regularly to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and helped to grow vegetables for the homeless.

Across the country, some 2,500 people are serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. Some have already served 30 years or more. Yet it’s likely few of them will get out. Before he can be paroled, Christian still has to complete a behavior modification program and live for a year in a minimum security prison. And his hearing is one of only a handful like it around the country since Miller. The Supreme Court said that the young people’s capacity to mature and change entitle them to a second chance. But lower courts, legislatures, and parole boards have more incentive to maintain the status quo than to show mercy—to follow the letter of Millerbut not its spirit.

That’s because letting more prisoners like Christian go free requires a return to an idea that the country largely abandoned a generation ago: that criminals can be rehabilitated, and there is a limit to just retribution. As costs rise for the growing prison population, legislators from every corner of the political map are now calling for a softening of sentencing laws. But legislation about the future is one thing. Giving a second chance to people who have already been sentenced for doing terrible things is another.

Christian was convicted in 1998 of two counts of first-degree murder. At the time of his crime, he was a drug dealer. He and two friends planned to rob three other dealers. But one of his friends shot the other men, killing two and wounding the third. Christian says (and the evidence suggests) he had no idea his friend meant to shoot the dealers. He didn’t hurt anyone himself. Still, he was convicted under the felony murder rule, which says all participants in a crime that ends in someone’s death can be treated as equally culpable. His sentence was mandatory: life without parole.

In Miller, the Supreme Court said sentencing judges must have discretion to consider mercy for juveniles facing life sentences. Before imposing life without parole, a judge must consider factors that set teenage criminals apart from their adult counterparts: immaturity, susceptibility to peer pressure, limited control over their home environments, and difficulty evaluating risks or appreciating consequences.

Letting more prisoners go free requires a return to an idea that the country largely abandoned a generation ago: that criminals can be rehabilitated.

But the court left open the question of what to do with the juvenile lifers like Christian, now adults, who were sentenced before Miller. Several states, including LouisianaMinnesota, and Pennsylvania, which collectively house almost half of the nation’s juvenile lifers, have said Miller is not retroactive: It only applies to new cases.

Even in states in which courts are reviewing old cases in light of Miller, they’re often leaving the defendants in prison for life. This month in Iowa, a judge heard from 33-year-old Romeo Hardin, who was 15 when he shot 21-year-old Augustus Nance in a gang initiation rite. After considering what he called Hardin’s “pathetic” childhood, filled with violence and neglect, the judge again sentenced him to life without parole. The same judge resentenced another juvenile lifer, Christine Lockheart—who was convicted of first-degree murder after waiting in the car while her boyfriend robbed and stabbed a neighbor—to life with the possibility of parole. In Michigan, a judge recently resentenced one person sentenced to life without parole, for a murder and carjacking at 16, to the same penalty. He resentenced another man, who was 14 when he shot and robbed an elderly woman, to 40 to 60 years. “Some people—let me emphasize, some people—need a second chance,” the judge said.

In other states, including Massachusetts, these sentencing determinations are in the hands of parole boards. Often appointed by governors, board members can be exquisitely sensitive to reflecting badly on their bosses. The ghost of Willie Horton may forever haunt the Massachusetts board. More recently, the board got into trouble for granting parole to lifer Dominic Cinelli, who then shot and killed a police officer in a botched armed robbery in 2010. Gov. Deval Patrick forced five of the six sitting parole board members to resign the following year. Parole rates dropped precipitously after that.

In deciding whether to give an inmate like Christian a second chance, many parole boards consider the severity of his original crime, and the reasons for it, at least as heavily as whether, and how much, he has changed in the decades since. “The parole board always tries to figure out what motivated someone to commit a crime—why did they do it?” says Patricia Garin, a Boston criminal defense attorney who specializes in parole.

Before Christian’s hearing, the board heard from Joseph Donovan, whose case has garnered media attention as an example of harsh sentencing: At 17, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for throwing an ill-fated punch. Last month, he shuffled into his hearing, balding and thick around the middle at 38. “I was such a stupid kid,” he told the parole board of his teenage self.

As a lanky 17-year-old with a dark-haired pompadour, Donovan was out on a Friday night, looking for beer with some kids from his Cambridge, Massachusetts, neighborhood, when two exchange students brushed past him on the sidewalk. Donovan’s bluster and posturing—don’t you say excuse me?—quickly escalated when Donovan threw a punch so forceful that it broke his hand and knocked Yngve Raustein to the ground. While Donovan nursed his injured hand, his 15-year-old friend Shon McHugh pulled out a knife and, unprovoked, stabbed 21-year-old Raustein to death. Tried as a juvenile, McHugh served 10 years of a 20-year sentence. A third friend they were with, Alfredo Velez, testified against Donovan in exchange for a reduced sentence; he too served 10 years.  

But Donovan was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. At Donovan’s hearing, the parole board asked him the obvious questions about his violent behavior. “Where does this punch come from?” asked one member. “Where do you think that rage came from the night that you punched the victim so hard that you broke your own hand?” asked another.  

“I wanted to project a tough guy image—to be the man,” Donovan told the board. “It’s a childish, stupid thing, to even have that thought.”

In the last 15 years, Donovan has dedicated himself to reading and artwork, and he has been involved in no violent incidents in prison. But the early part of his sentence was marked by fights and assaults resulting in a cumulative seven years in solitary confinement. At his hearing, he also had to explain this part of his record. “When I was first sent to [prison], I was scared and confused. I made a series of poor decisions. I always wound up in the hole,” he said. There in solitary confinement, “I realized I let other people dictate my actions. I let events spin out of control. I had to step up and take responsibility for my actions. Because, at the end of the day, they’re the only thing I can control in this life.”

Joe Donovan told the board precisely the kind of story that Miller is meant to account for: He said he went into prison an impulsive, self-centered kid and grew up to be a reflective, empathetic man. An adult. “The fact is, that night, now, who I was back then, is so far removed from who I am today,” Donovan said. “I can’t believe I ever did that.” The parole board has yet to make a decision about his case. He’s waiting to find out if he’ll ever escape his 17-year-old self.

Beth Schwartzapfel is a freelance journalist who covers the criminal justice system. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, the American Prospect, and the Boston Review. Follow her on Twitter.


Parole of Brockton juvenile killer sets off debate

Originally posted Jun 10 2014 by Ed Donga

AP Photo/Elise AmendolaFrederick Christian speaks on his own behalf during a hearing before the state's parole board in Natick, Mass., Thursday, May 29, 2014.

AP Photo/Elise

AmendolaFrederick Christian speaks on his own behalf during a hearing before the state's parole board in Natick, Mass., Thursday, May 29, 2014.

Experts are unsure what impact the parole of Frederick Christian will have on other inmates sentenced to life without parole as juveniles.

BROCKTON – Convicted killer Frederick Christian, 37, has moved one step closer to freedom, but experts are unsure what that means for the 62 other prisoners sentenced to life without parole before they reached adulthood.

Last Thursday, Christian was granted parole a week after he became one of the first prisoners sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile to appear before the Parole Board after the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled last year that the sentence was a cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles.

The ruling came after a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down mandatory life sentencing laws for minors.

Christian had received the life without parole sentence for his participation in a 1994 Brockton armed robbery that left two men dead and another wounded. Christian’s friend, Russell Horton, 18, was the shooter.

“It’s hard to say from this case what will happen in any of the other cases,” Naoka Carey, the executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice. “My sense is that every case is very, very different not just in the circumstances of the crime, but what that person has done since the crime.”

In Massachusetts, Christian and 62 other prisoners, including Joseph Donovan who had his parole hearing on the same day as Christian and is still awaiting a decision, were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Of those 63 prisoners, over 40 percent of them were sentenced to life without parole despite not being the individual to inflict the fatal blow, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Now, those prisoners will all be eligible for parole after serving 15 years of their sentence.

“Before the court’s decision, we (Massachusetts) fell on a very extreme end of things,” Carey said.

Previously, minors charged with first degree murder were tried in adult court regardless of age, and age was not taken into account during sentencing because the sentence was mandatory, Carey said.

Now, Massachusetts, like other states, is seeking to move towards the middle.

“Everyone is sort of moving away from it because the U.S. Supreme Court has really questioned it,” Carey said. “I think the overall trend is definitely away from life without parole for individuals under 18.”

The reasoning behind the opposition to life sentences without parole for juveniles is that their brains are not yet full developed.

“They don’t have the same ability as adults do to respond to their emotions, control their behavior and weigh their own actions,” Carey said.

The juvenile years are also a time when the brain is changing dramatically, meaning that juveniles can often grow into an adult that is significantly different from themselves as a minor, Carey said.

However, not all individuals watching the issue agree with getting ridding of life without parole for minors or with Christian’s parole.

Last Thursday, Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz blasted the Parole Board’s decision to grant Christian parole.

“We provided the trial transcripts to the parole board and crime scene photos,” Cruz said in a statement. "Those are the best evidence in this case and they do not support the Parole Board's findings or its decision to set this double murderer free.”

During the hearing, Carlos Araujo, the surviving victim from the attack, also expressed his wishes that Christian remain behind bars.

“In five months, he would have been 18, and then we wouldn’t be here; I ask that he never be let out,” Araujo said, according to parole board’s decision.

Some groups, such as the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, believe states like Massachusetts have gone too far by eradicating life sentences without parole for juveniles as a sentencing option.

“There are certainly horrific cases that warrant that option,” said Liz Hare, the organization’s president. “They’ve taken the life. The person who is dead doesn’t get to come from before a parole board and be alive again.”

In Massachusetts, the number of prisoners granted parole while serving a life sentence has been on the rise in recent years.

In 2011, only 12 prisoners serving life sentences were granted parole. In 2012, the number jumped to 22, and in 2013, it jumped again to 27.

Of the 27 prisoners granted parole while serving life sentences in 2013, eight of them were sentenced as juveniles.

Edward Donga may be reached at


Hawaii On Track To End Life Sentences Without Parole For Minors

Seven states across the country have already outlawed life sentences for minors, and it looks like Hawaii might be next.

The bill, which is now at Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s (D) desk, would abolish life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when the offender was younger than 18.

Introduced by state Reps. Karen Awana (D) and John Mizuno (D), the bill says that juveniles should have the opportunity for parole because they are “more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures ... they have limited control over their own environment, and they may lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.”

Abercrombie is reviewing the fine print of the legislation with Attorney General David Louie. Abercrombie has until July 8 to sign or veto the bill.

Currently, Hawaii requires annual reevaluations of all prisoners eligible for parole; the juvenile sentencing bill would allow children convicted of first-degree murder to be sentenced to life, but they would subsequently be eligible for parole and reevaluation.

Recent studies have shown that adolescence -- which is defined as puberty up to the mid-20s -- is still a formative period in development and that youth are amenable and responsive to therapy. Furthermore, the juvenile sentencing bill notes that, when “neurological development occurs, the individual can become a contributing member of society.”

Opponents of life without parole for juveniles argue that, while adolescent behaviors mimic those that define antisocial personality disorder -- such as irritability, lying, truancy or failure to accept responsibility -- they are prevalent in adolescents only because those individuals are still developing mentally.

But Honolulu prosecutors say that it wouldn't be fair to draw lines separating offenders from others who were born just weeks earlier, and that the state already accommodates offenders who are younger than 22 years old with no prior convictions.

The United States is the only country in the world that imposes life sentences without parole on minors, a violation of Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that “neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by persons below eighteen years of age.” In 2009, Human Rights Watch calculated that there are more than 2,500 youth offenders serving life without parole in the United States.

As recently as 2005, minors under the age of 18 were allowed to be sentenced to death. The Supreme Court’s Roper v. Simmons decision made the U.S. the last Western country to abolish the death penalty for minors.


Minnesota Supreme Court debates juvenile sentences

State high court weighed whether Mahdi Ali, who was 16 when he killed three men, should serve life without parole.

The Minnesota Supreme Court is considering, once again, whether it’s the right time to give a juvenile murderer a chance to fight his mandatory life sentence without parole.

On Tuesday, the justices heard the case of Mahdi Ali, who was 16 when he killed three men during a robbery at Minneapolis’ Seward Market in 2010. Under state law, his premeditated-murder conviction called for a life sentence without parole, even for juveniles certified to stand trial as an adult.

In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller vs. Alabama, a case involving a 14-year-old boy, that sentencing juveniles to spend life in prison without considering factors like their youth, motive and potential for rehabilitation violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling didn’t ban life without parole for juveniles, but it said judges must consider mitigating circumstances before imposing such a harsh penalty.

Minnesota had eight juvenile killers in prison for life without parole before the high court declared it unconstitutional. Since May 2013, the state Supreme Court has ruled on two of those cases, rejecting arguments for changing sentences.

During Tuesday’s hearing, the justices spent much of the time questioning attorneys about the logistics and legal guidelines they would have to develop if they remanded Ali’s case to Hennepin County District Court to consider changing his life-without-parole sentence to one of at least 30 years with parole. They also debated if these juvenile cases call for action by the Legislature to change life-without-parole statutes.

Ali received two consecutive life sentences and a consecutive life-without-parole sentence. The two life sentences, served back to back, would keep him in prison for a minimum of 60 years, said assistant state public defender Lydia Villalva Lijo. She argued that the life-without-parole sentence was unconstitutional and that entire sentence should be reserved in light of Miller vs. Alabama.

“This case has changed the landscape of sentencing,” she said.

In recent months, state Supreme Courts in Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts and Texas have ruled that inmates serving life for juvenile crimes should receive new sentencing hearings.

Villalva Lijo suggested the Legislature needs to change the state’s life-sentence law, which was amended in 2005 to require that several serious crimes receive a mandatory “no parole” punishment. She said she’d like to see the law return to allowing parole eligibility after 30 years on a life sentence.

“But the court is now confronted with a very difficult situation because the state law is now unconstitutional,” she said. “Right now, a life sentence without parole is still mandated, and the district courts have no discretion for a different sentence.”

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea reminded her that Miller vs. Alabama doesn’t prohibit a district judge from imposing a life sentence without parole.

Justice David Stras said the court is in an ambiguous situation because “Miller is out there and we aren’t sure of the Legislature’s intentions” regarding the life without parole law.

The crimes involved in the two other juvenile cases appealed to the state Supreme Court happened long before the Miller decision; in both cases, life sentences prevailed. In 1996, 17-year-old Timothy Chambers stole a car and led police on a high-speed chase that ended when he slammed into a squad car, killing a Rice County sheriff’s deputy. In 2000, 17-year-old Tony Roman Nose raped and stabbed a teen to death.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465


Opinion recap: Narrow ruling on young murderers’ sentences

Originally posted Mon, June 25th, 2012

Lyle Denniston Reporter

States — and the federal government — that allow life prison sentences without a chance of release for minors who commit murder are now on notice, from the Supreme Court, that they may have a hard time justifying any such sentence that is actually imposed.   In a 5-4 ruling on Thursday, the Court left open the possibility that such sentences could still be imposed, even as it barred making such a sentence mandatory in all cases of homicides by youths under age 18.  At a minimum, any life-without-parole sentence for an adolescent murderer will get very heavy scrutiny if it goes to the Supreme Court.   Indeed, the Court said it expects such a sentence to be uncommon from here on.

The new decision, written by the newest Justice, Elena Kagan, continues the trend that started a quarter-century ago of demanding that criminal punishment for children generally must be different — and less harsh — than for adults.   The whole premise behind that trend is that children are not adults, but rather are unformed people with the capacity to change, and to grow beyond being a thoroughly corrupted individual beyond redemption.

In earlier rulings in that trend, the Court had flatly barred the death penalty for minors who commit murder and had flatly barred life without parole for minors who commit a crime that does not involve the death of the victim (so-called non-homicide crimes).   In the new combined cases of Miller v. Alabama (10-9646) andJackson v. Hobbs (10-9647),  youths convicted of murders when they were 14 years old asked the Court to extend such a flat ban to life without parole when the victim is murdered.   As an alternative, the two youths asked the Court at least to rule out entirely any such sentence if the youth were only 14 when the crime occurred.

The Court chose not to adopt either approach.   Instead, it simply struck out any requirement that life without parole be the mandatory penalty for murder by a minor.   The Court did not rule on whether that sentence would be invalid in the two cases before it — involving Evan James Miller of Speake, Ala., and Kuntrell Jackson, of Blytheville, Ark.   It sent their cases back to state courts to make the kind of “individualized” sentencing decision that the new ruling demands.   If, once again, they are sentenced to life without parole, their cases conceivably could return to the Supreme Court.

What sentencing judges now must do, when a youth is convicted of murder that occurred before age 18, is to focus directly and only on that one individual in choosing a sentence.  The judge must assess the specific age of that individual, examine that youth’s childhood and life experience, weigh the degree of responsibility the youth was capable of exercising, and assess that youth’s chances to become rehabilitated.  Only if the judge then concludes that life without parole is a “proportional” penalty, given all of the factors that mitigate the youth’s guilt, can he impose such a sentence.

The decision provided no specific guidelines, nor any clearly defined list of factors, that are to control that sentencing decision.   The opinion noted that, taking into account everything the Court had said in the string of decisions limiting punishment for minors, about children’s “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change,” the Court thinks that “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”

It commented that judges with a youthful murderer before the bench will have “great difficulty” distinguishing between a minor whose crime reflected “unfortunate yet transient immaturity” and “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”   The opinion concluded: “Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

Justice Kagan’s opinion was joined by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who has been the Court’s leader in monitoring the sentencing of youths who commit crimes; as the senior Justice in the majority, Kennedy assigned the opinion in this case to the junior Justice.  The opinion also was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor (who, in a separate opinion written by Breyer, argued that if the state of Arkansas again seeks to impose life without parole on Kentrell Jackson, it should have to prove that Jackson personally killed or intended to kill the robbery victim who was shot to death in that case.  Without that finding, those two Justices said, life without parole would be an unconstitutional sentence for Jackson).  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also joined the Kagan opinion, and did not write separately; neither did Kennedy.

Three of the four dissenters wrote opinions: Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas; Justice Thomas, joined by Scalia, and Justice Alito, also joined by Scalia.

Plain English summary

In a series of decisions dating back to 1988, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that youths under age 18 who commit crimes must not necessarily get as severe a punishment as adults who committed the same kind of crimes.  Among other rulings, the Court has forbidden the death penalty for minors who commit murders, and it has barred a sentence of life in prison without a chance of release for minors who commit crimes in which the victim is not killed.  In this new ruling, the Court avoiding imposing such a flat ban on life without parole for a minor who commits murder, but it did rule out such a sentence as a mandatory requirement in all such cases.  It said, though, that it does not expect very many youths under age 18 to get such a sentence that essentially would require them to stay in prison until they die.

Trouble in Sumner home boiled before double slayings

Originally Posted October 21st The Tennessean

Crosses mark the bottom of the driveway of Gary and Tammy Moore, who were killed Oct. 14 at their Cottontown house. Their 17-year-old son is charged in their deaths. / SANFORD MYERS / THE TENNESSEAN

Tennessee was supposed to change everything for the 17-year-old boy.

Leaving the small town of Scottsville, Ky., was meant to be a step in the right direction — away from the neighborhood where he saw his parents fall into debt, divorce and then reconcile; out of the school where, friends say, he was mercilessly bullied; and beyond his run-ins with police, who were called to the family’s house multiple times, once because his mother told them her son was “out of control.”


“The move to Tennessee was supposed to make (his) life better, to get away from everything,” said his older brother Justin Moore, 27. “It just doesn’t make any sense."

But the trouble escalated when the teenager and his parents, Gary and Tammy Moore, moved into a small rental house on Highway 25 in Sumner County.

Public records document the private turmoil simmering in the Moore home, arguments so intense that just last month the shouting woke Tammy Moore. She walked into the room to see her son — high on drugs — pointing a compound bow at his father. The son was arrested, for the second time this year.

The third time the Sumner County deputies went to the Moores’ Cottontown home, on Oct. 10, they found the couple shot to death. The son and a 21-year-old friend, Chase Vinson of Cross Plains, stand charged with two counts each of first-degree murder, aggravated arson and theft exceeding $10,000. Vinson’s brother Chad, 38, is charged with accessory after the fact to first-degree murder after, authorities say, he helped hide weapons and a stolen truck.

Prosecutors want the case transferred out of juvenile court to criminal court, where the teen can be tried as an adult. If convicted in juvenile court, he would serve a maximum of 19 years. If convicted in adult court, he could be sentenced to life in prison or life without parole.

A judge will make that decision after he hears the results of a psychiatric evaluation he ordered performed on the teenager. The Tennessean does not identify teenagers charged with crimes until they are transferred to adult court.

Deadly combinationPolice, friends and family say that although the Moore family may have struggled at times, they treated one another well. Justin Moore said the family would take frequent vacations to Barren River State Park to camp and boat. He said they’d take trips to Panama City Beach and theme parks. They gathered at the family dinner table to eat nearly every night. And, even though Gary, 54, and Tammy Moore, 51, divorced nearly a decade ago, the couple reconciled and moved back in together about a year later.

“We went camping, we did vacations, we did it all,” Justin Moore said. “It was unbelievable that something like this would happen.”
And yet, he said that his younger brother constantly got into trouble and didn’t respond to his parents’ discipline. Records show a growing anger with his family and a drug problem that developed.

“So, you have domestic issues, robbery and drugs involved,” said Maj. Don Linzy, with the Sumner County Sheriff’s Office. “It mixed to a deadly combination.”

The teen grew up in Scottsville, Ky., in rural Allen County, population about 20,000, just 60 miles northeast of Nashville. There the teen lived with his parents and three older siblings — two brothers and a sister.

Gary Moore worked as a driver for USF-Holland, a Michigan-based trucking company that has offices in Nashville. The company declined to answer questions about what kind of an employee he had been, but he had been driving for the company at least since 2003, court records show.
Tammy Moore didn’t work and often suffered with bouts of depression, Justin Moore said.

Around 2001, Justin Moore said, his parents ended their marriage in what he described as a cordial split, and Gary Moore moved out. About a year later, the two reconciled. Gary moved back in and life resumed as normal, but the couple never remarried.

“They still slept in the same bed and still lived in the same house,” Justin said. “I think it was more or less knowing that they weren’t married that they got along so well. When they got divorced, they were happy as can be. Dad loved Mom.”

In fact, though their marriage was troubled, Gary Moore wanted to keep his wife on his insurance plan so she could get treatment for her depression.

But in 2003, the Moore family filed for bankruptcy, citing more than $131,000 in debt, including medical bills and credit cards, according to federal court records. Justin Moore said the medical bills were related to his mother’s mental health.

That same year, their daughter, Shannon Moore, requested a restraining order against her father, saying he threatened to physically drag her away if she didn’t get home one night when he found her out late with friends. She was 18 at the time. A judge signed the order, warning Gary Moore not to threaten or abuse his daughter, but it was in place only a month before it expired.

Justin Moore laughed when asked about the order, saying it was just a way of trying to “push back” against authority. Linzy agreed, saying that after talking to Shannon Moore, “I think she would say she did the wrong thing.”

Shannon, now 26, could not be reached for comment.

In 2005, her youngest brother had his first encounter with the law.

Scottsville police spotted him in a “carload of intoxicated teens,” according to police records. He was 11 at the time.

Four years later, Tammy Moore called police on her son, saying he stole $5,000 from a lockbox in the house and ran away. It’s unclear from records whether he was arrested in either of those incidents.

Four months later, records show, she called police on him again, saying he was “out of control.”

Wes Vandyke lived next to the teen in Kentucky and befriended him about 11 years ago. He said the Moores were nice and treated him like family.

But as the teen entered high school, trouble started. Vandyke said the teen was continually bullied.

“He said everyone treated him bad but me,” said Vandyke, 21.

Daniel Turner, 22, another friend from high school, said the teen wouldn’t fight back, so he protected him, intervening when someone caused trouble. He also remembered him talking about quitting school and never wanting to go home.

“He just said he didn’t like it,” Turner said. “He would never go into any detail.”

Friend's dad uneasy

After arriving in Tennessee, the teenager befriended Chase Vinson.

Vinson’s father, Dwight, said the teen liked to play martial arts video games with his son, but the father was uneasy about their friendship.

“On his second or third visit, I told my son that he needed to stay away from him, that there was something wrong with him,” said Vinson, 65, of Cross Plains. “Every time the subject of his mom and dad came up, he would shut down. It was like he didn’t want to go home. You could tell that they didn’t get along in some way.”

Vinson’s instincts were right.

In January, Tammy Moore called 911 on her son after an argument in which Gary Moore slapped the teen, which led to a scuffle on the ground. Sumner County deputies arrested the teen on a simple battery charge.

On Sept. 19, Tammy Moore called 911 again on her son. She woke up to arguing and came downstairs to see he “had a compound bow with an arrow in place aimed at her husband.” Deputies said the teen was delusional, “talking about people were out to get him,” and had injected heroin before the incident. Deputies again arrested him, this time on an aggravated battery charge.

The cases were pending when the Moores were killed.

The teen’s Kentucky friend Vandyke said that he still talked with the teen on occasion and that the last time the two talked was Oct. 10, the day the couple were found slain.

“He said, ‘Me and my friends want to come over and hang out,’” he said. “He wanted my help for something.”

But Vandyke said the teenager never told him what he wanted.

Vandyke agreed to let the teen visit, but he never showed up. The next day, Vandyke saw news reports that said Gary and Tammy Moore had been shot to death and set on fire in an attempt to cover up the crime.

The teenager remains jailed awaiting his next court hearing. A judge set a $1 million bond for Chase Vinson, and his brother Chad Vinson remains jailed without bond.

Staff writer Nicole Young contributed to this report. Contact Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 or

Flawed objections to juvenile law reform

Originally Posted October 5, 2011 by James Alan Fox

The response to my last blog post--a call to abolish life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers in Massachusetts--was lively and contentious. While many readers concurred with the goal of better aligning our state with the rest of the nation, some would have Massachusetts remain one of the harshest and most punitive when it comes to sentencing youth.

The negative tenor of certain reader comments was unsurprising, not because introducing parole eligibility for juvenile murderers is in any way a radical idea. Rather the unwillingness of some folks to consider he reforms proposed in S. 672 and H. 1346 (An Act Relative to the Sentencing of Children), is based on an array of misconceptions and falsehoods about juvenile justice.

A group of responders, thinking perhaps with their pocketbook in mind, argued for restoring the death penalty in Massachusetts. Aside from the fact that the death penalty costs more, not less, than long term incarceration, a return to capital punishment would not-- and could not--apply to juveniles. The U.S. Supreme Court already decided that executing those whose crimes were committed before their 18th birthday is unconstitutional.

In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court ruled that the former practice in many states of executing juvenile murderers was cruel and unusual: cruel because it was contrary to evolving standards of decency and unusual because the U.S. was virtually alone in this regard. Moreover, the Court was persuaded by scientific evidence that youngsters are different. No matter how heinous the crime, juveniles should not be held to the same standard of responsibility as adults.

Undoubtedly, as several of my critics argued, juveniles are fully aware of the wrongfulness of killing. However because of their transitional stage of cognitive and emotional development, their ability to think long term and to grasp fully the enormous impact of their crimes is limited. They fail to appreciate the profound consequences of taking someone’s life--not for their victim or even for themselves. They don’t imagine what it would be like growing up and growing old in prison, never marrying, and never having kids or a career. Indeed, what is the significance of life from the perspective of someone who has lived only 14 years?

This lack of foresight helps to explain why, according to a study by the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, nearly half of the offenders serving life without parole for juvenile murder had rejected a plea bargain offered by the prosecution in favor of a jury trial. They end up paying with their lives for a bad decision on legal strategy. If the prosecutor thought that 15 years (parole eligibility for second-degree murder) was just punishment, is it right that the juvenile should instead spend the remainder of his life in prison?

Besides having poor judgment, juveniles are especially susceptible to external forces, including the approval and disapproval of peers. They do terrible things on a dare, often commit crimes in groups, and are easily pressured by older teens or adults.

Juveniles behave impulsively. Simply put, teenagers may look like adults, dress like adults and even kill like adults, but they reason and deliberate as juveniles. A harsh punishment will not make someone think twice, when they don’t really think once before acting.

Other commenters to my blog focused more on the need to keep extremely dangerous offenders away from society for extended periods of time, even life. Names like Eddie O’Brien and Daniel LaPlante were mentioned by a couple of outraged readers. However, the proposal to give juvenile murderers parole eligibility does not necessarily grant them parole release. The proposed change in law appropriately provides for lifetime incarceration in the case of individuals who cannot be safely returned to society. But this decision is best made down the road, not at time of sentencing.

A few indignant readers reminded me of the simple fact that the there is no parole for the victims of first-degree murder from their fate. For them, regardless of the perpetrator’s age and level of maturity, there can be no second chances. Of course, this sad truth holds for victims of second-degree murder, manslaughter, and vehicular homicide--all crimes for which the perpetrator does have the possibility of returning back to society even while the victim remains buried in the grave.

In general, punishments should fit the crime. But they should also fit the criminal. Murderers are not all the same in terms of culpability and dangerousness to society. With sufficient time, most juvenile offenders will mature, develop better judgment and foresight, and earn the opportunity for a second chance. Life without parole is a walking death sentence.

Dissenting readers based their objections while contemplating repeat, chronic, ruthless hoodlums. However, 40% of juveniles sentenced to life without parole in Massachusetts were first-time offenders. Contrary to the claims posted by several of my critics, many of these juvenile offenders are or will someday be excellent parole risks.

Also quite different from the common stereotype are youngsters who were convicted under the felony-murder rule, representing as many as 20% of those serving life without parole in Massachusetts for juvenile homicide. By law, all parties involved in the commission of a felony during which someone is killed are considered responsible, regardless of how the death occurred, who caused it, or whether it was intentional.

An accomplice can be convicted of first-degree murder without having dealt the fatal blow, or any blow for that matter. In such cases, the prosecution need not prove the intent to kill, nor is such intent even required for conviction.

By far the biggest myth is the notion that Massachusetts is soft on violent juveniles. To the contrary, the state stands as one of the very toughest. In Massachusetts, all defendants as young as 14 who are accused of murder are tried as adults--no exceptions. Other states also permit trying such youngsters as adults, but make it discretionary depending on the circumstances. Moreover, in Massachusetts anyone 14 or older who is convicted of first-degree murder, including felony murder and joint ventures, are automatically given life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Massachusetts trial judges have expressed discomfort and regret as they send a teenager away for life without parole. However, the Commonwealth gives them no other option. Other states employ life without parole, but allow exceptions given mitigating factors.

The problem with the current law is not so much in its toughness, but in its rigidity. The law was passed in the wake of the Eddie O’Brien murder case and was designed to put such offenders away for life. O’Brien may represent the worst case, but is hardly the typical case. Of course, laws need to accommodate worst case situations, but at the same time allow for more measured responses for less extreme crimes.

For second-degree murder (i.e., murderous intent without premeditation), Massachusetts grants parole eligibility after 15 years. Given what we know about the immaturity and impulsivity of juveniles, shouldn’t they have the same opportunity? Even then, those believed to pose too much of a threat to public safety can, and should, be held longer. Under the proposed amendments, juvenile murderers canbe incarcerated for their entire lives if the parole board determines that they are at risk of reoffending.

I hope you put aside your preconceptions of liberal Massachusetts, one of only two states that employs life without parole for someone as young as 14. I hope you will consider the fairness of giving juveniles--those who are truly deserving--the possibility for a second chance at freedom. For a teenage offender, a sentence of fifteen years, at the minimum, is hardly a slap on the wrist or in any respects an insult to the victim.

Author's note: You can follow me on twitter at @jamesalanfox or Facebook at Professor James Alan Fox for notifications of new blog postings. Also, you can find me on the Web at or contact me by e-mail at

The Importance of Evidenced-Based Research in Establishing Juvenile Justice Policy

Originally Published September 16th Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

By John Lash

John Lash

Over the last few decades politicians have advocated for stricter sentencing guidelines and for trying more juveniles as adults. These decisions have been largely driven by public fear and a desire by elected officials to be seen as “tough on crime.”

They do not rely on evidence-based research, one of the least used methods for determining juvenile justice policy.

Some of these attitudes seem to be changing though. Over the last few years, research has generated data that are beginning to be acknowledged by policy makers. One such study is Pathways to Desistance, sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in partnership with many other groups interested in effective juvenile justice practices. The study followed 1,354 serious juvenile offenders between the ages of 14 and 18 for seven years following their conviction.

Several interesting conclusions have been drawn from the study, as outlined in an OJJDP fact sheet prepared by Edward P. Mulvey, the lead researcher. According to the fact sheet, “Most youth who commit felonies greatly reduce their offending over time, regardless of the intervention.” This seems to point to the idea that as people mature they tend to make better decisions. This applies even to those who commit terrible crimes.

Another conclusion of the study is that longer stays in juvenile facilities do not lower the risk of reoffending when compared to placing the youths on probation. In fact, the group with the lowest level of offending actually tended to increase their criminality the longer they were kept in confinement. A better approach was community based supervision, which increased participation in school and work, and which led to lower rates of involvement with the juvenile system. Increasing the time that the juvenile spent in community based supervision led to even lower rates of reoffending.

The study also supports the efficacy of substance-abuse treatment. Even when taking into account the types of offenses, race and socioeconomic status, treatment that included strong family involvement led to a decrease in criminal behavior. One finding of the study is that the prevalence of drug use among juvenile offenders is three to four times higher than in the general population. Thirty seven percent of the males had been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. Dr. Mulvey suggests that joining substance abuse treatment with community-based supervision may lead to greater reduction in offending over the short and long term.

The OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book says that in 2007 (the last year listed) 86,927 juveniles were in detention. According to Models for Change, a website devoted to juvenile justice reform, seventy percent of these are held in state-run facilities, at an average cost of $240.99 a day to house. States are looking for ways to save money, and evidenced-based policies can help meet that goal. They are certainly a better choice than programs that are ineffective and that may actually increase crime.

I hope that studies like this will be taken into account when new policies are being decided. Juvenile life without parole, automatically trying juveniles as adults, and imposition of mandatory minimums on young offenders should all be revisited in light of studies such as Pathways to Desistance. Along with the latest research in adolescent brain development these real world studies point to a new way of approaching juvenile crime. Perhaps we can begin to salvage these kids instead of throwing them away.

John Lash SmallJohn Lash

John Lash served nearly 25 years in Georgia prisons. He was released in December 2009. While in, he began to practice Zen meditation and other approaches to studying consciousness. He later became interested in interpersonal communication and group processes. He studied and taught nonviolent communication and restorative practices in prison where he also got his BS in human resources management from Mercer University. He is a participant in Compassionate Leadership, a non-violent communication training program, and is a student in the Master of Conflict Management program at Kennesaw State University.