Arkansas Supreme Court rules for juvenile resentencing - KSLA News 12 Shreveport, Louisiana News Weather & Sports

Posted: Jun 18, 2015 8:57 AM MDTUpdated: Jun 18, 2015 8:57 AM MDT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Arkansas Supreme Court has ordered a new sentencing hearing for an inmate serving mandatory life in prison without parole for crimes he committed as a juvenile.

The justices on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling that Ulonzo Gordon should receive a new sentence in line with a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring mandatory life sentences for juveniles.

The decision could impact the sentences of other inmates serving such terms in the state, including two appeals the Arkansas high court remanded back to circuit court last month without ruling on retroactivity because of procedural issues.

The Arkansas court also previously sent Gordon's case back to circuit court for procedural issues.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Louisiana case arguing in favor of retroactivity later this year.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Oklahoma Teen Sentenced to Life Without Parole for 'Bored' Drive-By Murder :

BY JEFF TRUESDELL @jhtruesdell

06/17/2015 AT 05:35 PM EDT

An Oklahoma teen who fired the fatal shot in the 2013 murder of a jogger who was targeted, according to police, because the shooter and two other teens said they were bored, was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison. 

Chancey Luna, now 18, wasconvicted of first-degree murderin April for killing Christopher Lane, 22, an Australian baseball player about to begin his senior year at East Central University in Ada. Lane was visiting his girlfriend in Duncan when he was shot in the back while jogging about 3 p.m. on Aug. 16, 2013. 

Stephens County District Judge Ken Graham's sentence of life without parole followed the recommendation of the jury, which rejected the defense argument that Luna was only trying to scare Lane, The Oklahomanreports

The driver of the vehicle in which Luna was riding, Michael DeWayne Jones, now 19, was sentenced to life in prison after he pleaded guilty in March to second-degree murder. Unlike Luna, Jones will be eligible for parole in 36 years. 

A third teen, James Francis Edwards, then a 15-year-old passenger in the vehicle, was charged as an accessory to murder after the fact, and will be tried as a juvenile after he agreed to testify against Jones and Luna. 

Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.


Meet the victims of mass incarceration |

Marlene Martin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty reveals the invisible injustices of the prison system in this account of a visit to a downstate Illinois jail.

June 15, 2015

Inside Menard Correctional Center in downstate Illinois

IT IS a wet dreary day in Chicago when a group of 35 people gather at Precious Blood Church on the Southwest Side of Chicago to make the long drive to Menard Correctional Center. The prison is at the southern end of the state, a six- or seven-hour drive from Chicago, depending on traffic.

Julie Anderson has made the trip, on her own, with a friend or with her husband, five times a month--the maximum number of visits a prisoner is allowed--every month for the past 20 years. Her son Eric was 15 when he was convicted of a double homicide and given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. "I never knew my life was going to be like this," Julie tells me. "What I once thought of the criminal justice system has completely changed. I used to believe in it--I don't anymore."

People have their bags, suitcases and blankets, and they're beginning to congregate in front of a large bus, donated by Northwestern University School of Law's Bluhm Legal Clinic. This is the fourth annual trip, coordinated to help family members visit their loved ones, many of whom were sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles.

For some, this bus trip will be the only time this year that they will be able to get to Menard, since many don't drive and wouldn't be able to afford a hotel stay. Ray Joiner, whose son is incarcerated at Menard says, "They put these prisons so far away for a reason. It makes it so difficult for family to visit. That makes it hard on these guys, not getting to see your family. It's like they want to break you. And that's exactly what they do--they break you."

A minister says a prayer before we leave. As he steps off the bus, someone says, "This is the party bus." People chuckle as the bus pulls away.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

OF THE 3,400 prisoners housed at Menard, 17 will get visits over the two days we're there, as a result of this trip.

Julie will be visiting her son's cellmate Michael, because her own son is presently at Cook County Jail, awaiting a resentencing hearing. "He's a wonderful person," she says of Michael, "and I feel bad because he doesn't get visits very often. He's been such a good influence on Eric. They've become very close. And he's so smart. He helps a lot of people in there."

Julie sends as much as she can to both Michael and Eric, so they can share items they buy from the commissary. Julie's mission is to bring her son home--since she can't do that right now, she'll instead bring as much home to him as she can. That's why she makes this long trip five times a month--she is Eric's lifeline.

Like the other juvenile offenders at Menard who were given mandatory life without parole sentences, Eric has had a stroke of luck. Because of a 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Miller v. Alabama case, it is no longer constitutional to sentence people who were juveniles at the time of their alleged crime to mandatory life without parole sentences. Then, in 2014, Illinois became one of several states to determine that the Supreme Court ruling should be applied retroactively.

Each of the 80 prisoners still incarcerated in Illinois who were given a mandatory life without parole sentence as a juvenile offender will get a resentencing hearing. Each one will come before a judge, who will decide if the sentence was correct or if a lower sentence should be imposed.

In theory, a judge could listen to a prisoner's appeal and determine that they have already served enough time--and vacate their sentence. That's what Julie and the other family members are holding out hope for.

Unfortunately, the Miller decision didn't do away juvenile life sentences. Going forward, judges can still impose this barbaric sentence, even for a juvenile. But at least now they will be required to take "mitigating circumstances" into account: the age of the defendant at the time of the crime, their life circumstances, and the current scientific research showing that the brains of juveniles are still developing and so they have less impulse control and are more vulnerable to peer pressure.

The U.S. has more than 2,000 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences--a sentence that no other country in the world gives to minors.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

RESENTENCING HAS begun in Illinois, and that has Julie very much on edge--especially considering how the first case went: that of Adolfo Davis.

Back in 1990, when Adolfo was 14 years old, he agreed to be the lookout for his fellow gang members in a crime in which two people were killed. He was arrested and put on trial as an accomplice, but the courts treated him as responsible, as if he had pulled the trigger. When he was convicted, he was given a mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentence--even though he didn't actually kill anyone.

Earlier this year, Adolfo, now 38 years old, came before Judge Angela Petrone for his resentencing. The hearing lasted 11 hours, and one of the moms of an Illinois prisoner describes what a grueling day it was: "[Petrone] let the prosecutors talk for four hours, and they just kept saying the same thing over and over again, and dramatically pointing at Adolfo. She only gave us a two-minute bathroom break, and then you had to be back in the courtroom. Some people couldn't even get downstairs to the bathroom in time."

Petrone re-imposed the original sentence, stating in her opinion: "This sentence is necessary to deter others. It is necessary to protect the public from harm. The defendant's acts showed an aggression and callous disregard for human life far beyond his tender age of 14."

Julie was in the courtroom to support Adolfo. She was stunned by Petrone's ruling. "She didn't even give any credence to the new findings on brain science that were presented at his hearing," Julie said. "The judge said it was only speculative. But the Miller ruling specifically talked about the brain science. It's not speculative! She had her mind made up as soon as she came in there."

Julie described watching Adolfo--who has already spent almost two-thirds of his life locked up in prison--when he heard he had been re-sentenced to life without parole. "It was awful," Julie said. "He just broke down. His shoulders were heaving as he sobbed. I was so angry. I just went home, and I thought: Really? Really?"

Julie said Adolfo wasn't even in the room when the judge entered and began to read out her seven-page decision. His lawyer had to interrupt to stop her so he could be found. "She wasn't even aware that he wasn't here," Julie said. "She wasn't even going to look at him. She's throwing away his life, and she isn't even going to look at him. He wasn't even a person to her."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

ON THE bus, someone puts on a movie, a few folks chat quietly with each other, and others stare out the window at the endless miles of flat, open land on each side of the highway.

Julie tells me I won't be able to take pictures of Menard. "No, they don't let you. They don't even allow photos of the prisoners." She pulls up a picture of Eric on her phone. Beaming out is a young, slim, handsome boy of 15. "This is Eric when he was 15," she says proudly, "but that's it. I don't have anything current." Even though Eric is now 35, there is nothing to depict him over the years or to chronicle his visits with his family. "It's just cruel--another form of humiliation." Julie says of the policy.

Gladys Weatherspoon is talkative and friendly. She is traveling with her mother Maxime to visit her brother, Fred Weatherspoon, who has served 22 years in prison. He's also charged with accountability. "I've been on three of these trips, and I just hope we don't have to make it again," she says, referring to her hopes that Fred's sentence will be vacated at his hearing.

Gladys has two kids of her own, who are grown and out of the house. She talks about some difficulties in her life own life. "I live with my mom now," she says. "I haven't worked in three years." She talks about hopeful job prospects and of maybe being a nursing assistant--when she finds out that I'm a nurse myself, she asks me detailed questions.

I overhear her ask Ray if he believes in God and then if he believes in hell. I think to myself that they're already living through a kind of hell. Ray says he does, and Gladys is incredulous. "Like all that fire and heat and stuff?" she asks.

Throughout the bus ride, people share similar stories of the awful conditions inside prison, starting with the petty and cruel restrictions. Julie asks the people around us:

Remember when the woman visited, and they told her she couldn't leave with the candy bar she bought? She didn't see the signs, and she had bought the candy bar from the commissary, so she thought she could bring it out with her. They were so mean. They were just screaming at her: "No! YOU CANNOT BRING THAT OUT!"

So the girl just sat there and opened up the wrapper, and she just shoved the candy bar all into her mouth, and just munched on it right in front of them. She just stared at them as she munched on it. They were so mad. She got banned from visiting for that.

Another family member talks about the routine shakedowns inside the prison. While their cells are searched, the men are brought into a main area, their hands are shackled, and they're made to squat down and put their foreheads on the wall. They aren't allowed to move, and they might have to stay there for hours. Some defecate on themselves, and others fall over or pass out.

When I ask why they're made to do this, Julie answers: "Because it's prison. Because that's what they do." Others nod in agreement.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WE HAVE a bus driver who makes good time. Julie said the last bus driver they had was mean and took the long way to get to Menard. Our bus driver Roland is friendly and appreciative of what we're doing. At the end of the trip, he tells us he wants to be our driver next year, and will join us to visit someone inside. "I actually know a few guys in there," he says.

We pull into the convent where we will be staying before 5 p.m., and the nuns--all of them white and most of them elderly--are waiting for us and start to fuss over us immediately: "How was the drive? You must be hungry? Come in and have something to eat."

Everyone will have a room of their own, with a dresser and Internet--every three people will share a bathroom. The nuns show us to our rooms down the expansive corridors, where our names are handwritten on each door. The nuns refuse to take any money for our two-day stay, and they insist on feeding us several meals while we are there.

Emmanuel Andre is the tall, elegant man who co-organizes this annual event with Julie. They are a study in contrasts outwardly: Julie is short, white and gregarious; Emmanuel is tall, Black and reserved. But both care a great deal about these families and the prisoners, and they convey respect when talking with each of them.

A certain amount of dignity is stripped away from family members when a loved one is in prison. How do you tell your friends that you are taking a three-day trip to downstate Illinois to visit your son, who is locked up in prison and may die there? Emmanuel wants to give back their rightful dignity to every family member.

Emmanuel is a practicing attorney who knows the inside of the criminal justice system and helps break down the legal jargon for people. Each night, Emmanuel pulls people together in a circle to share what is on their mind. We each take a turn speaking to the questions he poses, "What are you most looking forward to on this visit?" "What is it that you feel you need most right now?" He listens carefully as each person speaks.

Mary Hicks, who will be visiting her son Keon Hicks, expresses how happy she is to be seeing her son. Unlike the family members of others in the circle, her son is not eligible for resentencing. "My son missed it by a year." She expresses her gratitude to everyone. "It just feels so good to be with you all," she says, as she smiles broadly.

Many people give thanks and recognition to God. One mom says, "I know God is going to see us through this."

When Gloria Jackson speaks of visiting her son Demetrius, she breaks down. Between sobs, she talks about how isolating it was before she met the other family members in the room. "It was just so hard," she says. "I just cried so much. I felt so alone, and I didn't think I could to it. You all helped me."

Sitting next to her, Gloria's daughter is also crying as she tells us how happy she is to be seeing her brother. Demetrius, like Eric, will be getting a resentencing hearing, and like Adolfo, he was charged with accountability, which means that even if you didn't actually commit a crime like murder, you are just as guilty in the eyes of the law for having participated in it.

The Guerra family, a mom, brother and sister, are in the circle for the first time. Maria, the mother, talks about how frustrated she is with the criminal justice system. "They twist everything you say," she says. "You say one thing, and they twist it around like it was something else." Anita, the sister, says, "My brother didn't do anything wrong. He shouldn't be in there." Daniel, the brother, remains silent, fidgeting nervously with his hands.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE NEXT day, we go in two shifts to Menard. People are dressed up like they are going to church. Gloria is wearing a smart white denim matching pantsuit. Vera has her hair done up nice and is wearing a striking purple shirt.

Approaching Menard is like approaching a fortress. It's a huge facility, perched on top of a hill. We are processed and assigned seats in the small visiting room that looks like a workplace lunchroom--there are 20 or 30 small tables with chairs that are all bolted to the floor.

Signs litter all of the walls with various rules written on them. On the back wall are vending machines. Some of the family members begin buying food from the machines and put it on the tables as they wait for their loved one to be ushered in. Prisoners aren't allowed to get up from the tables once they sit down, only the visitors can.

This will be my first time visiting Jamie Jackson. I came to know him from working alongside his mother Marva in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's chapter in Chicago. Even though Jamie didn't get the death penalty, his "life until death in prison" sentence is tantamount to the same thing. Marva and other moms--like Virginia Clements, whose son Mark Clements, now free and a dedicated Campaign member, also got life without the possibility of parole--wanted a place to fight for their sons too. So they got involved in our chapter.

Julie is excited I will be able to visit with Jamie. Marva is getting older, and it's difficult for her to make the trip. "I've called her a few times, begging her to come, but I just can't convince her," Julie says. "I just love Marva. She is the sweetest thing. She's always praying for me."

Jamie is late in arriving, so I sit and watch as others greet their loved ones, hug, laugh, begin chattering. We call out to each other, and some introduce me. I comment more than once, "He looks just like you!" Even though we can't go to each other's tables, there is a sense of camaraderie about the visit.

Ray, who lives in the Englewood neighborhood, is the only dad making the visit--he's here to see his son Robert, who is serving a 40-year sentence and is likewise not eligible for resentencing. In the group circle later that night, he identifies the atmosphere in the room that day. "It was a good visit," he says. "It had a good energy in the room. I've been on other visits, this was a good one."

I am amazed at what the prisoners can eat. Keon Hicks is tearing through burgers and all kinds of snacks. Julie is visiting her son's cellmate Michael, and he has piles of food she has bought for him on the table, which he carefully unwraps and eats as he talks and laughs with Julie.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

FINALLY, JAMIE comes out. We exchange a hug. His smile is warm, and he's upbeat.

He tells me the guys were calling him pops for a while because he had a long beard until just a few days ago. "Then I just cut it all off," he says. His head is bald, too. "I shave it," he says. "Does it look good?" He tilts his head back to show me. He has an easy laugh, oftentimes from the belly. How can you laugh from the belly in a place like that? I don't know, but Jamie does.

I want our table to match the others and use up the $20 I put on the vending card, but Jamie can't tell me anything he wants from the vending machine. I guess and come back with a burger of some sort and a bag of chips. He doesn't even finish the burger and painstakingly nibbles on each chip until they are finally gone. "I don't care about the food," he says. "I just want to talk."

He wants to know how the ride down was, what it's like at the nun's place. I tell him about how I took a walk around the grounds surrounding the convent and got lost. "I walked toward a barn I saw," I say, "and a whole family was eating at a picnic table out back. I walked towards them, and they all turned to look at me, surprised to see me there, while I apologetically asked them if they could point me in the direction of where the nuns live." Jamie says, "Good thing you weren't Black." He leans back in his chair laughing, and so do I.

There aren't many Black people around this area. The majority are confined inside Menard. This area has a reputation of being Klan country.

Jamie tells me of his work at Menard. He works in the kitchen six days a week, six hours a day. He and a crew of guys clean the food trays, wash and stack them again. It's very physical labor, for which he gets paid $19 a month.

He talks about how he once had a job stocking items for the commissary: "I really liked that, and I was good at it. I had to figure out how much to order of something, and I always changed it up. Like I always had a different pair of sneakers, not the same ones. I would figure out what was selling and what wasn't and always changed it up a bit." I can tell by the way Jamie describes this job that he would be good at running a business of his own. He says it's one thing he hopes to do one day.

Jamie was convicted of robbing and killing a store clerk in 1991, when he was 17. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. But his sentence doesn't exactly fit under the Miller decision. The judge who imposed it wasn't required to do so under mandatory sentencing. "But he may as well have," says Jamie. "He really didn't take anything into account, like the fact that I had no prior record."

Jamie and his lawyer believe that the Miller decision will have ramifications that will eventually help Jamie, too. Presently, he has a petition before the court for a new trial, and he is also pursuing resentencing in light of Miller.

Jamie went to prison when he was 18. He just turned 42 last month.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

IN NO time at all, our two hours are up. We are escorted out by a guard, get back on the bus and head back to the convent. Julie is glad it was hassle-free with the guards and staff. "They treated us nice," she says. Everyone on the bus is jubilant, asking one another if they had a good time, and hearing only yesses. Someone says, "But the very best part is that we get to come back and visit again tomorrow."

On the ride back to the convent, Daniel--the brother from the Guerra family, who was silent at the circle last night--is sitting behind me with his mom next to him. I haven't heard him say very much. I ask him what he's holding. I can see it's a painting. "It's my dad." His brother painted a picture of his father wearing a hard hat. "That's my dad," he says nervously stroking the painting.

Daniel starts getting excited and pointing out the window. "I drove that," he says excitedly. "I was there. I drove my tractor there!" His mother Maria says firmly, "Look at me." He does, staring blankly at her. She says, "Calm down, it's okay." After a few moments, he does calm down, and she lets him look away. She tells me that Daniel has seizures and she sometimes has to be careful that he doesn't get too excited.

Daniel looks out the window again, at the green rolling meadows, spotted with barns and cows, and he says, "I drove that, I drove that tractor." I let him know how proud I am that he did.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

AT THE circle that night, people share how happy they were to see their loved ones.

"It just felt so good to give him a hug," LaToya Jackson said about visiting with her brother Demetrius. Vera Wages visited her brother Michael Wages and said, "It was just so good to see him," Esther Clark was beaming about her visit with her son Javell.

I was embarrassed when it was my turn, and I cried. I felt overwhelmed by the injustice of it all--to look around and see them visiting, chatting, all dressed up, and seemingly so happy in such an impossible, sad situation that has pushed their relatives so far away, maybe for the rest of their lives. I choke out: "I hope we can get more people like me to visit, to be involved, to help make this invisible injustice visible."

Sarah Silins, who used to help organize these events, drove down on her own with her 10-year-old son. She has brought him before, and he likes the whole experience. "This is good for him," she says, "it's good for him meet these family members and prisoners." She is watchful that he is nothing but respectful to everyone. But she doesn't have to worry--everyone finds him endearing with his mop of curls and his friendly demeanor.

Sarah has an insightful observation about the visits. She notes how family members have been deprived of seeing their loved ones in social situations. "They never get to see them interact with other people," she says. It's something that you can see that Sarah treasures, as she watches her young son's interactions with family members and prisoners.

It's such a simple thing, but life exists in all the simple things. These parents, these brothers and sisters--they've never gotten to see their family members hang out with their peers, interact with a coach or a teacher or a workmate. So the very brief moments in the visiting room--when we call out to each other across our tables, "Oh you look just like your mom!!" "Hello, it's nice to meet you." "How are you doing?" "I'm doing just fine, thank you"--for just a very few precious moments, it's almost kind of normal.

The next day's visit goes equally well. Jamie is in a good mood. He wants to talk about his case, what he feels needs to be done to help him get out of prison. Again, the time goes by too quickly, and I'm getting up to leave. I can see the tears welling up in his eyes. "You'd better send pictures," he yells as he stays seated on his bolted seat, while I line up with the others to leave.

In a letter I get from him when I get home, he says, "It was like I just wanted to walk out with you when you were leaving."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

ON THE way home in the bus, people are quiet. Julie ordered everyone a Subway sandwich with chips. She's happy that the families had a good visit, and that most everything went smoothly.

Julie's son Eric does nice paintings, and he donated one to the nuns. After Julie showed the painting to me and Gloria Jackson, she turned to me and said in her husky voice, "She didn't know Eric had life." "Yeah," Gloria agreed, "I didn't know." Julie is so good at taking care of everybody else that not everyone knows her own story.

Julie tells me her daughter called to ask if Sarah was making the trip, and pointed out to her mom that if Sarah didn't go, Julie would probably be the only white person on the trip. I asked Julie what she thought of that. "The system is racist," she said, matter of factly.

Her son Eric is likely to have a resentencing hearing sometime in August. In the meantime, Julie is preparing herself for what might come:

Eric wasn't a bad kid. I was very strict. I was raised Irish Catholic. When Eric complained about his school, that he hated it, I didn't do anything. One time, they made him have silent lunches for one month. I didn't know. Looking back, I should have moved him. Now I would get him out of that school. But that's me at 56--28-year-old Julie didn't know to do that.

Shortly after arriving home, I get a letter from Jamie. The judge has ordered him to court, and he isn't sure why. In a few days, I learn that the judge has agreed to hear Jamie's petition for a new trial. He now has 60 days for his lawyer and him to get ready to make the best case they can to the judge for a new trial.

Hope leaks out of his letter. He writes: "I've just spent so much time in here, I'm ready for the next part of my life to begin."


America’s Other Death Penalty | Al Jazeera America

As states abolish capital punishment, it’s time to shine a light on its substitute, life without parole

June 1, 2015 3:45PM ET

by Christopher Moraff   @cmoraff

Last week Nebraska became the 19th U.S. state to abolish the death penalty when a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers voted to override the governor’s veto of a bill they passed to ban the practice. Nebraska is the first Republican-controlled state to outlaw state-sanctioned killing since 1973.

The news was hailed as a victory for proponents of enlightened justice policy and sparked a flurry of headlines predicting the demise of capital punishment in the U.S. There is much to celebrate in the shifting national dialogue on capital punishment; however, lost in the jubilation has been a critical assessment of what happens next and what it could mean for thousands of future inmates, not to mention the taxpayers responsible for their care. 

Like every other state that has abolished the death penalty, Nebraska will replace it with life without parole (LWOP) — a sentence that was practically unknown in the U.S. until the 1970s and whose use has grown exponentially since then.

According to the Sentencing Project, as of 2012 there were roughly 50,000 inmates serving LWOP — many of them for nonviolent offenses such as drug trafficking. The number of LWOP inmates grew by nearly a quarter from 2008 to 2012. As more states back away from the death penalty, that number will spike even higher. A list of states with the most prisoners serving LWOP includes several that have eliminated their death penalty.

As with capital punishment, an argument could be made that there are remorseless offenders whose crimes are so heinous that they should never be released from prison. That is certainly true. The problem is, unlike in capital cases, there is currently no process in place to ensure LWOP sentences are reserved for those few who deserve them.

That’s because in practice LWOP enjoys far broader application — and is subject to significantly less scrutiny — than the punishment it supplants. While courts have spent years dissecting nearly every legal nuance of capital punishment and providing layers of protections for defendants facing death, the LWOP machine has churned on largely unchecked. 

Life without mercy

In the late 1970s the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory death sentences are unconstitutional, and it barred the death penalty for crimes other than murder. But scores of inmates are sentenced every year under mandatory LWOP statutes, thereby denied the separate guilt and sentencing phases provided in death penalty trials. Meanwhile, the proportionality doctrine that applies to capital cases — which requires presentation of specific aggravating circumstances to support a death sentence — is absent when it comes to life sentences. As a result, LWOP is regularly applied to crimes far less serious than the taking of a life.

As media attention has focused on America’s broken system of capital punishment, the gravity of an LWOP sentence has been largely ignored, with the exception of cases that involve juveniles. Prisoners sentenced to LWOP (known in some states as life without mercy) have only two recourses to avoid dying in prison: a full pardon or commutation of their sentence. Both are extremely rare and nearly impossible to secure. For this reason, some criminologists now use the term “death in prison” instead of “life without parole” when referring to these sentences.

Brooklyn Law School professor and former federal prosecutor I. Bennett Capers calls LWOP “capital punishment’s often neglected stepsister.” He blames its proliferation, in part, on death penalty abolitionists who have championed LWOP as a more humane alternative without considering the implications of their compromise. 

If a person is to be condemned to die in prison, should it really matter in the eyes of the law if it is at the hand of an executioner or the handsof time?

In a 2012 book of essays titled “Life Without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty?” he reflects on his experience trying capital cases and attributes the casual attitude of many attorneys and criminal justice reformers to the idea of LWOP to the “cult of death” that permeates American jurisprudence.  

“We ... had repeated the mantra ‘death is different’ for so long that we had come to accept it as necessarily true,” he writes. “We prosecuted our LWOP defendants as if they were interchangeable widgets on an assembly line, and it was clear that they were often defended the same way too. I barely gave these defendants a thought.”  

Capers contrasts the many statutory protocols around seeking, securing and carrying out a death sentence with the near complete absence of such protections in LWOP cases. Primary among them is the vigilance applied by legislatures and courts to rectify the racial disparities long evident in capital cases — which he says are even more stark when it comes to sentences of life without parole. 

Immoral, ineffective, unsound

In the series of impassioned speeches that preceded the Nebraska legislature’s final vote on the death penalty, lawmakers — many of them conservatives — took turns calling out capital punishment as immoral, ineffective and fiscally unsound. Those same modifiers could be used to describe LWOP. 

It is ineffective because, except in rare circumstances, there is no measurable public safety benefit derived from keeping someone locked up for life — even those who are convicted of the most serious offenses. Convicted murderers have the lowest recidivism rate of any offender (about 1 percent), and numerous studies show that older prisoners rarely reoffend after release — particularly if they have been incarcerated for an extended period. 

Similarly, LWOP is inefficient because it utilizes enormous resources to address a nonexistent problem while invalidating the work of our parole and probation system (which is already tasked with weeding out irredeemable inmates).

Keeping people in prison for decades until they die may be cheaper than housing them on death row, but the cumulative costs are still prohibitive. By one estimate (PDF), the U.S. spends over $16 billion a year housing and caring for inmates older than 50 — twice what it costs to incarcerate younger offenders. The price of providing health care alone for these low-risk inmates is breaking state correction budgets.

Finally, denying an inmate the possibility of parole is immoral because it fails to recognize the capacity of the human soul for redemption. The only remaining motivating factor for unduly restrictive sentencing regimes — retribution — negates the principle of rehabilitation that informed American corrections policy throughout most of our history.

The Enlightenment-era criminologist Cesare Beccaria — whose writings helped influence the Founders’ thinking on criminal justice (most notably the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment) — suggested that any sentence that doesn’t arise from absolute necessity is tyrannical.

If we are to avoid the tyranny of which Beccaria speaks, then defendants facing the prospect of LWOP should enjoy the same strict scrutiny afforded those who were previously subject to the ultimate punishment. If a person is to be condemned to die in prison, should it really matter in the eyes of the law if it is at the hand of an executioner or the hands of time?

Christopher Moraff is a freelance writer who covers policing, criminal justice policy and civil liberties for Al Jazeera America and other media outlets. He was recognized in 2014 with an H.F. Guggenheim reporting fellowship at John Jay College

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.


House Passes Sentencing Bill Giving Youth Offenders Chance At Parole - Hartford Courant

By Jenny Wilson

contact the reporter

The state House of Representatives Tuesday approved a juvenile sentencing bill that would give youth offenders serving long prison terms the chance at parole. 

The measure cleared the House in a bipartisan vote of 135-11 late Tuesday; an amended version now goes back to the state Senate.

The bill is a response to two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions addressing juvenile sentencing, and designed to conform Connecticut law to what the Court held in two separate cases in the past five years: That automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juveniles under the Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. In both cases, the high court's majority ruled that lack of maturity, susceptibility to peer pressure, and differences between juvenile and adult brains should be taken into account in sentencing - reasoning that the teenage brain is not developed enough to be deemed incapable of reform. A 2010 case, Graham v. Florida, struck down juvenile life sentences without parole for non-homicide offenses. In 2012, a divided Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that the constitutional protections extend to homicide offenses as well, prohibiting automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles.  

State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, the House chairman of the judiciary committee, said the bill was necessary to comply with the two landmark Supreme Court decisions. 

"Under the Eighth Amendment, we have to adjust the way we sentence juveniles," Tong said. 

As the system stands now, "you make a decision at the outset that the child is incorrigible," Tong said. "Very few children are incorrigible." 

The bill includes provisions that would require courts to take mitigating factors, like brain development, into account when sentencing someone who committed a crime between the ages of 14 and 18. 

It would provide sentencing review to some juveniles serving lengthy sentences for crimes committed at a young age, and it would allow some juveniles a chance at parole sooner if they committed a crime when they were younger than 18 and received a sentence of longer than 10 years in prison. 

Supporters of the bill insist that it would not result in the automatic release of any juvenile offenders; it would simply give them an opportunity to demonstrate to the state Board of Parole and Pardons that they have rehabilitated. If the legislature does not address this issue, supporters of the bill say, the battle is likely to be fought in the state court system as juveniles, citing the recent Supreme Court decisions, demand sentence review. 

Copyright © 2015, Hartford Courant


Fwd: Almost There: Urge Connecticut Senators Today to Pass SB 796!

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From: The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth Date: May 27, 2015 at 10:12:07 AM MDT To: Subject: Almost There: Urge Connecticut Senators Today to Pass SB 796! Reply-To:

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Contact Connecticut TODAY!

Action Alert


Connecticut's SB 796 would abolish life-without-parole sentences for youth, bringing the state in line with international standards. The bill has passed the House with a minor amendment and the Senate needs to take one final vote!

Please contact Senate leadership by THURSDAY AT NOON ET to support this bill and ensure children in Connecticut are never sentenced to die in prison.

HOW TO CONTACT CONNECTICUT LEGISLATORS Email or call by Thursday at noon ET to support SB 796! One call or email only takes 30 seconds!

Look up your senator here to call or email them

Call or email the Senate leadership below: Judiciary Chair Eric Coleman Click to email or call (860) 240-0528

Judiciary Ranking Member John Kissel Click to email or call (860) 240-8800

Senate President Martin Looney Click to email or call (860) 240-8614

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff Click to email or call (860) 240-8365

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano Click to email or call (860) 240-8800

Feel free to use the script below as a template when you email or call:

"My name is [YOUR NAME] and I am [CALLING/EMAILING] to express my support for SB 796 and urge [NAME OF SENATOR] to support SB 796 as well. It is essential that Connecticut enact legislation that creates fair and age-appropriate sentences for children. SB 796 will abolish life-without-parole sentences for kids and is in line with the meaning and spirit of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Children are different than adults and extreme sentences like life without parole are never appropriate for Connecticut's children."

Extend your impact! Don't forget to reach out to your personal networks (friends, coworkers, organizations, family members) to ask them to also contact these legislators today!

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Arkansas Supreme Court returns juvenile case to lower court - Beaumont Enterprise

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A circuit court must reconsider the joint case of two inmates serving mandatory life terms in prison without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In separate 5-2 majority rulings, the high court said the First Judicial Circuit Court improperly ordered resentencing last year for Aaron Hodgeand James Grubbs before addressing probable cause by holding a hearing to determine that they were younger than 18 when they committed the crimes. The lower court had been considering whether they should receive new sentences in line with the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 ruling that barred mandatory no-parole life sentences for juvenile offenders.

A hearing on age determination likely will happen this summer in the circuit court, according to Hodge's and Grubbs' attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig.

Hodge was convicted of capital murder in the 1995 shooting deaths of his stepfather, stepsister and mother. Grubbs was convicted of capital murder in the 1995 death of a classmate whose body was found bound, beaten and submerged in a creek.

The cases were heard in a joint oral argument before the state Supreme Court last month, but the justices issued separate opinions.

During the previous circuit court hearing, Rosenzweig said, the attorney general's counsel said it didn't dispute the men's ages, and Circuit Court Judge L. T. Simes took that as a concession that the men were the correct age when he ruled on retroactivity.

Judd Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said regardless of the inmates' ages, the office argued that the lower court erred because the hearing to verify the ages was not held.

Associate Justice Rhonda K. Wood argued in the dissenting opinions that the majority inappropriately based its ruling the court's Hobbs v. Gordon ruling.

In that case, the high court similarly sent inmate Ulonzo Gordon's retroactivity appeal back to circuit court for a probable cause hearing to determine age. Wood wrote there was a "legitimate dispute" because of an error in Gordon's records, but no such dispute exists for Grubbs or Hodge.

Rosenzweig, who also represents Gordon, said the lower court settled the age dispute in Gordon's favor.

"That (Gordon case) is in the basket at the (Arkansas) Supreme Court with the state appealing on the issue of retroactivity," he said, noting that the decision the court makes in that case would likely affect Grubbs, Hodge and the more than 50 other inmates serving similar sentences in Arkansas.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Louisiana case arguing in favor of retroactivity later this year.


Boston Marathon bomber: Would life without parole be punishment enough?

Jury deliberations on whether to execute Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or sentence him to life in prison without parole could begin Wednesday. The use of life without parole sentences in the US is growing rapidly.

By Henry Gass, Staff writer MAY 13, 2015

BOSTON — Ken Hartman is 55 and healthy, but he says he feels like he was killed decades ago. When he was 19, he beat a homeless man to death in an alcohol- and drug-fueled rage, and he has spent the past 35 years in prison. So long as he is alive, he will not be eligible to leave.

Mr. Hartman is among the 50,000 prisoners in the United States serving life without parole sentences, a number that has increased 22 percent since 2008, according to a 2013 report by the Sentencing Project. And on Wednesday, the jury in the Boston Marathon bombings trial will begin deliberating over whether to add Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to that group.

In his case, life without parole is seen as the more humane option. The other alternative is death, and there is some evidence that, as states turn more to life without parole, it is partly from a humane desire to move away from the ultimate punishment. The number of people sentenced to death in the US has declined from 3,600 to 3,000 since 2000, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Yet the rapid expansion of life without parole also speaks to the array of laws, spawned by the get-tough-on-crime 1980s, that remain on the books and mandate such sentences. At least 3,000 people sentenced to life without parole were convicted of nonviolent offenses, a report by the American Civil Liberties Union found.

racks in that mind-set are beginning to appear, as states, Congress, and the Obama administration reconsider mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Polls show growing support for reforming such laws. But most experts agree that so long as the death penalty exists, life without parole will continue to exist in its wake – a humane alternative of debatable humaneness.

“The death penalty operates to basically overshadow life in prison without parole,” says Marion Vannier, a criminologist at the University of Oxford in Britain researching a doctoral dissertation on life without parole in the US.

The quadrupling of life without parole

When Hartman was sentenced in 1980, life without parole was a relatively new sentence in California, where he is serving his time in prison. It had been introduced after the US Supreme Court banned the death penalty in 1972. (It was reinstated in 1976.) California, along with several other states, added life without parole as a fallback punishment for the worst criminals.

Hartman was considered to be among that group because he was judged to have attempted to rob the victim as well. When he was sentenced, Hartman says, “It didn’t seem real.”

“At the time, I don’t think people saw life without possibility of parole as life without possibility of parole,” says Hartman in a phone interview with the Monitor from California State Prison-Los Angeles County prison in Lancaster.

Life without parole prisoners call it "death in slow motion" or "the other death penalty," and Hartman has started an advocacy group named the Other Death Penalty Project to raise awareness about life without parole sentences.

Since Hartman was sentenced, life without parole has gone from being an extremely rare sentence to being a far more common one. Mandatory minimum sentences for “habitual offenders” as well as the harsh sentencing included in the war on drugs have contributed to a quadrupling of the number of prisoners who received life without parole sentences between 1992 and 2012, according to the Sentencing Project report.

While most are in prison for homicide, more than 30 percent of the inmates sentenced to life without parole in eight states were convicted of something other than homicide, the report found. In Washington State, for example, two-thirds of the people sentenced to life without parole since 1994 received that sentence because of the state's three-strikes law.

In at least 37 states, life without parole is available for convictions like burglary, robbery and carjacking, according to the report. Florida leads the country in life without parole prisoners, with almost 8,000.

“The idea of whole-life prison sentences easily won approval in a period of growing skepticism about the value of rehabilitation,” says the report. “Instead, punishment and incapacitation became identified as the primary goals of imprisonment and many abandoned the idea of reforming offenders.”

'Aging out' of crime

Data show that crime has steadily declined since the 1980s, with violent crime rates now at their lowest point in decades. But as time passes, that crackdown is having knock-on effects, such as overcrowded prisons straining state budgets. Life without parole sentences are particularly relevant to budgets, given that prisons spend two to three times more to incarcerate an elderly prisoner – on average about $70,000 a year – than a younger one, according to Marie Gottschalk, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests many people “age out” of criminal behavior. A 2004 report by the Sentencing Project notes that criminals released after receiving life sentences with parole were rearrested at much lower rates than the overall prison population – 21 percent versus 68 percent.

Nearly 2,500 of the 50,000 inmates sentenced to life without parole were convicted of crimes that occurred before they turned 18, the Sentencing Project found.

“People will debate if people are deserving of long term sentences and if societies should punish, and that’s a legitimate debate to have,” says Marc Mauer, director of the Sentencing Project. “[But] we do know there are many people who have changed substantially after a couple decades of incarceration and don’t present nearly the public safety risk they did at the time of their crime.”

Hartman agrees, saying he would barely be able to recognize his 19-year-old self.

“I can’t even imagine the person I was when I was 19, it’s almost like another human being. And I think that’s probably true for every human being,” adds Hartman.

A humane alternative?

For Mr. Tsarnaev, the question of life without parole is different. If he were sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, it would be to spare him from execution.

But Hartman, for one, takes issue with the argument that life without parole is more humane than the death penalty.

“You’re basically sentenced to a long, slow death,” he says. “It’s like you were killed a long time ago, and now you’re sort of waiting around for it to come to an end.”

It is an issue that has come up in the Tsarnaev trial in Boston. In trying to spare Tsarnaev’s life, his defense lawyers have argued that his life in the super maximum security prison in Florence, Colo., will be punishment enough.

“There is no privacy. A camera will be trained on him 24 hours a day," defense attorney David Bruck said. "There will be no autobiography, no execution date to bring him back into relevance."

“This is where the government keeps other terrorists who used to be famous but aren’t anymore,” he added.

Compared with executing a criminal, life without parole can appear more humane. But that comparison is unhelpful, suggests Ms. Vannier of Oxford.

“It’s this bizarre situation where you’ve got two extreme forms of sentences, and one attracts attention, [while] the other basically attracts none,” she says.

Death penalty abolitionists have supported the expansion of life without parole as more states have used it as an alternative to the death penalty.

2010 poll in California found that support for capital punishment fell from about 70 percent to 41 percent when respondents were presented with life without parole as an alternative. A Boston-area poll taken in the first weeks of the Tsarnaev trial found that the majority of respondents favored life without parole over the death penalty.

“Life without parole will always come second as long as the death penalty is on the books,” says Vannier.

In some ways, that makes life without parole worse than a death sentence, Hartman says, because criminals sentenced to death are more a focus for activists and lawyers.

“People sentenced to death exist in a separate universe in many ways,” says Hartman. “They have more legal options coming, they have more attention from abolitionist groups and legal support groups.”

In 2012, death row inmates in California state prisons took the radical step of opposing the commutation of their sentences precisely because they would have been transferred to a life without parole sentence. In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that life without parole was “inhuman and degrading” and violated the European Convention of Human Rights because prisoners must have some prospect of release and incentive to rehabilitate.

Seeking solutions

For most life without parole opponents, the solution is simple: replace it with life with parole. Mr. Mauer has suggested a 20-year cap on federal prison terms with an option for parole boards or judges to add more time if necessary to protect the public.

But such a solution isn’t so easy. Victims’ rights groups argue that parole hearings amount to a form of recurring torture. Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, whose sister was murdered while pregnant, says that parole hearings represent “a lifelong nightmare” for victims’ families.

“Whatever the outcome, at some point for us the process has to end,” adds Ms. Bishop-Jenkins, who is also president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murders. “Could you at least give us that? A point at least where we don’t have to go to court and look at this offender?”

“That’s what victims’ families need. At some point we need some legal finality,” she adds.

The US is beginning to at least consider some of these questions. There is bipartisan support in Congress for reduced mandatory minimum sentences, and a decline in death sentences points to a broader reconsideration of the punishment. The American Pharmacists Association, for example, recently voted to oppose participation in executions.

The question, Hartman says, is whether that will simply increase the number of people in prison for life with no hope of ever getting out.

“The problem is, I imagine there’ll be 100,000, 150,000 people sentenced to a long, slow death in prison until people finally step back and think, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Does this make sense?’ ”


Parole board grants parole to man who was 16 when he murdered Lawrence cab driver - Metro - The Boston Globe

The Massachusetts Parole Board has granted parole to a man who was 16 when he fatally shot a Lawrence taxicab driver six times during a robbery, making him the ninth inmate serving a life sentence for a crime he committed as a juvenile to be granted release under a 2013 court ruling.

In a 5-to-2 vote, the board decided Jose “Joey” Tevenal Jr., 47, could be released to a long-term residential program after spending one year in a lower-security prison, completing substance abuse treatment known as Correctional Recovery Academy, and adhering to other conditions. The decision was issued Tuesday and made public Thursday.

“I can say on Joey’s behalf that he hopes to be a good citizen when he eventually is released to the community and he really hopes to make a positive contribution,” Elizabeth Doherty, Tevenal’s lawyer, said.

Tevenal has spent 30 years in prison for killing Paul Morel, 38, on Feb. 2, 1985, at the Hancock Courts housing development in Lawrence. Morel was summoned there as part of a plot hatched by Tevenal and two friends “to do a cab and get some money,” records show.

Former Lawrence mayor Kevin J. Sullivan said he wrote a letter asking the board to deny Tevenal’s request for parole. The random and cold-blooded nature of the killing shook residents, he said.

“It just led to a feeling of unease and the whole city was a victim, not just Mr. Morel,” Sullivan said.

Tevenal was convicted of first-degree murder on Feb. 10, 1986, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He became eligible to seek release because of a decision by the US Supreme Court that was expanded by the state Supreme Judicial Court into a ban on life-without-parole sentences for those convicted of murders as juveniles.

‘Tevenal has demonstrated . . . the necessary foundation for a successful transition to society.’

Massachusetts Parole Board decision 

The ruling granted a chance at freedom for 65 inmates. So far, 19 of those inmates have gone before the board, said Felix Browne, spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. Nine were granted parole and seven were denied, Browne said. Decisions in the other cases are pending.

Tevenal appeared before the board on Feb. 26.

The five-page decision said Tevenal met the legal standard for parole suitability.

“Tevenal has demonstrated through his conduct and insight that he has acquired the necessary foundation for a successful transition to society,” the decision said. “Tevenal has engaged in and benefited from rehabilitation.”

Parole Board chairwoman Charlene Bonner and member Ina Howard-Hogan opposed releasing Tevenal, the decision said. Citing the “nature of the offense” and Tevenal’s “lack of programming to address his substance abuse issues,” they favored revisiting his case in two years.

Morel’s family and representatives for Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett testified against parole for Tevenal. A spokeswoman for Blodgett declined to comment Thursday.

Messages left for Morel’s family were not returned Thursday.

Doreen Bartlett, who owned the taxicab company Morel worked for when he was killed, said she opposes freedom for Tevenal. “I’m disappointed that someone would be let out of prison just because they apologized that they took another life,” she said. “How can you take someone’s life and be let out of prison?”

The parole board said in its decision that Tevenal completed many rehabilitative programs in prison even before court decisions made him eligible for release.

Those include mental health counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous, and programs in anger management and emotional awareness. Tevenal also obtained his GED and certificates in culinary arts; computer skills; small engine repair; heating, ventilating, and air conditioning; and other areas, the decision said.

“He’s never forgotten that crime. He never thought he’d get out, but he did all these programs to help himself grow, learn, and change,” said Sue Burkart, a retired nurse from Waltham who befriended Tevenal during his imprisonment.

In its decision, the board wrote that Tevenal suffered physical abuse and emotional neglect as a child, particularly at the hands of his mother who was so immersed in her Pentecostal faith that she “began to neglect her children’s emotional needs.”

Tevenal lived in a housing development in Lawrence and attended city public schools, which had a “very high dropout rate,” the decision said. The city faced prevalent unemployment and crime.

By age 16, the decision said, Tevenal had dropped out of school, regularly drank to excess, smoked marijuana daily, and used other illegal drugs. While in prison, a clinical neuropsychologist discovered Tevenal suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was hit by a car while riding a bicycle at age 13 and fractured his skull, the decision said.

Tevenal felt rejected and unloved by his parents, and acquired a firearm to “project a fearsome ‘tough guy’ image,” ultimately culminating with Morel’s killing, the decision said.

Doherty, Tevenal’s lawyer, said she visited him Thursday at MCI-Shirley.

“All this took place at a young age,” she said. “He’s really not the same person that he was at 16.”


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi


Inside Track: Bryan Stevenson: This Public Interest Lawyer Could Change America:

Legal visionary, Bryan Stevenson, opens the conference speaking on the need for humanitarian change in the prison system in the U.S. Photo Credit: Nina Subin

Legal visionary, Bryan Stevenson, opens the conference speaking on the need for humanitarian change in the prison system in the U.S.

Photo Credit: Nina Subin

Alabama public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson is a tireless advocate for indigent defendants, prisoners, and kids sentenced to die in prison. But he’s also a powerful voice for change in America’s justice system, and he’s coming to Wisconsin June 25.

Legal visionary, Bryan Stevenson, opens the conference speaking on the need for humanitarian change in the prison system in the U.S.

May 6, 2015 – He’s called “America’s Mandela,” and it’s true that Alabama public interest attorney Bryan Stevenson is a powerful and reasoned voice for change.

When he’s not representing wrongfully convicted individuals who are waiting to die by execution, or kids sentenced to life in prison, he’s trying to address the failings of America’s justice system, including the consequences of mass incarceration.

When he’s not writing a New York Times Bestsellerabout his experiences, he’s serving on a presidential task force on 21st Century policing, commissioned to identify the conflict and distrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

And when Stevenson is not teaching race and poverty law at New York University Law School, he’s doing what many lawyers set out to do when they first decide to be lawyers: he’s changing the world, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute.

Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, is bringing his message of change to Wisconsin this summer.

He’s a featured speaker at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s upcoming Annual Meeting and Conference, June 25-26, at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva.

The opening speaker, Stevenson will discuss problems in America’s justice system, and how lawyers can help change the narrative that fuels racial inequality, racial disparity, and allows America to accept itself as the biggest incarcerator in the world.

“I’m interested in talking about lawyering and the way we problem-solve as a community on a range of issues, particularly related to criminal justice reform,” said Stevenson in a phone interview from his EJI office in Montgomery.

“It’s important to deal more honestly with the way the narrative of racial difference has emerged in our society and undermined our ability to think fairly when it comes to people of color, particularly the boys and men who are suspected or accused of crimes.”

Righting Wrongs, Urging Mercy

Stevenson grew up poor in segregated, rural Delaware, in the 1960s and 70s. He graduated from a small college in Pennsylvania, and earned admission to Harvard Law School. In 1983, he took an internship that shaped the course of his professional life.

As a 23-year-old law student, Stevenson did a one-month legal internship with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC), which assisted people on death row in Georgia. The experience focused Stevenson’s energy in a clearly defined way.

“My short time on death row revealed that there was something missing in the way we treat people in our judicial system, that maybe we judge some people unfairly,” Stevenson writes in his bestselling book, Just Mercy, released in 2014.

“The more I reflected on the experience, the more I recognized that I had been struggling my whole life with the question of how and why people are judged unfairly.”

Now, Stevenson works through the nonprofit EJI to litigate on behalf of indigent defendants, including those with wrongful conviction cases, juveniles facing adult treatment for crimes, and others impacted by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.

Just Mercy details his representation of a death row inmate. Just recently, Stevenson and other EJI lawyers won a long fight to exonerate Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row for two murders he did not commit.

The case drew national attention. Stevenson and EJI also litigate cases on behalf of imprisoned kids, working toward changes in sentencing laws for juveniles.

In 2011, Stevenson was at the Wisconsin Supreme Court, arguing that sentencing children under the age of 15 to life in prison with no possibility of parole, even for first-degree homicide, is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional.

In Wisconsin, persons age 10 and older are subject to adult treatment for first-degree murder, and sentencing courts have discretion to impose life without parole sentences.

Stevenson lost, but won a landmark juvenile law case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. In Miller v. Alabama (consolidated with Jackson v. Hobbs), the court sided with Stevenson in ruling that mandatory sentencing laws that put children under 18 in prison for life with no possibility of parole, even for murder, are unconstitutional.

The ruling did not impact Wisconsin, which leaves sentencing decisions to the discretion of the judge. But Stevenson believes that states like Wisconsin, which have the discretion to impose life sentences on kids as young as 10, should reconsider.

“I just don’t think that there are any 10 or 11 year olds that should be prosecuted as adults,” he said. “I really do believe there should be a minimum age for trying kids as adults, and it should be substantially higher than 10. I certainly count Wisconsin among the states where there is a need for reform when it comes to prosecuting children.”

“Even when kids don’t get prosecuted as adults, the fact that they are threatened with that can potentially be an issue that shapes the process and treatment that they get,” he said. ”It’s coercive and inconsistent with child status and protecting child rights.”

Truth and Reconciliation

Providing legal representation to the wrongly convicted, minors facing life, and other indigent individuals, is only one aspect of Stevenson’s work. Through his words, Stevenson is moving the country to address the truth of America’s past racism, and begin the process of reconciliation.

In 2012, Stevenson delivered a TED Talk about the failings of America’s justice system, mass incarceration, and racial inequality. It has generated more than 2.2 million Internet views and received the longest standing ovation in the conference’s 30-year history.

He notes that mass incarceration – about 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., a number that has quadrupled over in four decades – has collateral consequences. And he notes that indigent persons often face unequal treatment.

“We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent,” Stevenson said in his TED Talk.

Stevenson also notes racial disparities in the justice system. African-Americans are imprisoned at least eight times as often as whites. One-in-three black men between the ages of 18 and 30 is in jail, in prison, on probation or parole. According to a 2013 study, black males in Wisconsin are 10 times more likely than white males to serve time.

But why? Stevenson says minorities, especially black men, are subject to implicit bias that impacts arrest, charging, conviction, and sentencing decisions. This bias is the product of a narrative that treats African-Americans as more capable of crime.

“It’s about understanding the way our history of racial inequality has set us up to carry around a narrative of racial difference, making it harder for people of color when accused or suspected of crimes,” said Stevenson during a phone interview.

“This narrative creates a presumption of guilt or a presumption of dangerousness, which can lead to implicit bias,” he said. “We are just so used to thinking in this way that we don’t even appreciate the way its influencing justice, or creating injustices.”

In order to address this bias, and change the narrative that leads to it, Stevenson says America and its communities must confront its dark past.

“It really does begin with slavery and the way in which we never dealt with it,” Stevenson said. “The country created a different legal relationship to people of color than to people who are in the majority, and we never honestly addressed that history.”

“Then we had decades of lynching and racial violence in the Deep South, but it had implications for states like Wisconsin, too,” he said. “The African-Americans that came to Milwaukee came as refugees from terror. We never dealt with that history.”

Even the conversation about segregation, Stevenson said, was complicated by a narrative of fear and anger that communities did not confront.

“I don’t think we committed ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation in a way that we should have following the civil rights activism of the 1960s,” he said. “That just left us vulnerable to the narrative that undermines our ability to be fair with one another in the current workings of the criminal justice system. It’s part of the long historical arc of our country’s struggles with racial inequality that have given rise to these issues.”

As a way to confront the past, EJI published a recent report titled, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” The report notes that almost 4,000 African-American men, women, and children were victims of “terror lynchings” in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950, and documents some of the horrific details involved.

The report urges American communities to address oppressive histories and “concretize the experience through discourse, memorials, monuments, and other acts of reconciliation” to “overcome the shadows cast by these grievous events.”

Helping Solve Issues

Stevenson, referred to as “America’s Mandela” by South Africa’s Desmond Tutu – who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his opposition to apartheid – is a tireless advocate for addressing the past in order to change the future of criminal justice.

But he’s also living in the present, helping America deal with big issues involving race, including those that are impacting communities across Wisconsin.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama appointed Stevenson to a task force on 21st Century policing, commissioned to address concern and protest after police arrests in New York and Missouri resulted in the deaths of two young African-American men.

That task force’s report was released in March, the same month that a Madison police officer shot and killed a 19-year-old black man, Tony Robinson, and preceding waves of recent protests and riots in Baltimore after a young black man died in police custody.

In short, Stevenson is entrenched in helping America address important issues about poverty, race, and a criminal justice system that does not always create justice for all. And he says Wisconsin lawyers are powerful allies in solving issues of the day.

“Lawyers can be proactive in eliminating and challenging bias,” he said. “We should be pushing to diversity the bar and the bench, and we have to educate people about our history, and how it has shaped the challenges that are real in communities of color.”

Bryan Stevenson’s Annual Meeting and Conference address is made possible through a grant from the Wisconsin Law Foundation, the charitable arm of the State Bar of Wisconsin

Originally Posted on State Bar of Wisconsin


Imprisoned at 14, Illinois inmate gets resentenced to life without parole

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down life without parole for child convicts, Adolfo Davis hoped for a second chance

by Ranjani Chakraborty   @ranjchak

After almost a quarter century in prison, Adolfo Davis will not go free.

In a blistering ruling Monday, Cook County Judge Angela Petrone resentenced the Illinois prisoner to natural life in prison without chance of parole. He was first ordered to life in prison without parole when he was just 14 years old and convicted as an accomplice to a gang-related double murder in 1990. It was never proven that he fired his gun.

His landmark case has been closely watched all over the country, putting the issue of juvenile justice reform in the spotlight. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court found that sentencing children to life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment, allowing states to decide whether to apply that retroactively to cases like Davis’. 

In 2014, after taking a look at Davis’ case, the Illinois Supreme Court granted new sentencing hearings for dozens of inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as a child. The Illinois ruling meant that after more than two decades of thinking he would die in prison, Davis would get a second chance.

Now 38, Davis wiped his tears at the end of Monday's emotional hearing. Judge Petrone criticized defense witnesses, asserting that they were inherently biased toward Davis and overlooked the facts of the case. Petrone came down hard, saying a young Davis had planned to kill. Through the booing from the gallery, she announced her decision – Davis’ life sentence was reaffirmed.

“This sentence is necessary to deter others. It is necessary to protect the public from harm,” Petrone said. “The defendant’s acts showed an aggression and callous disregard for human life far beyond his tender age of 14.”

Petrone acknowledged that Davis has done some good while in prison, but said his “commendable acts towards self-improvement" weren’t sufficient to change his sentence. Davis at first stuck to his gang in prison, which eventually landed him around four and a half years in isolation for misconduct. But he says he broke off ties with the group more than a decade ago and is a changed man.

Petrone finished by stating Davis’ “attacks on other people, threats to kill and hurt those around him, and his continuous involvement in gang activity, all show that the prior sentence was the correct one.”

Davis’ lawyers can appeal the decision within 30 days.  

Juvenile life without parole is banned in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country in the world except three: Somalia, South Sudan and the United States. In Somalia and South Sudan, there are no known cases of people serving a life without parole sentence for a crime committed as a minor. In the U.S., there were around 2,500 as of 2008, according to a Human Rights Watch tally.

Davis was the youngest of the three members of Chicago’s Gangsters Disciples who went out to settle a score in October 1990, shooting dead two members of a rival gang. He was tried as an adult, convicted of double murder and sentenced, as the law required, to life without parole. Barely 5 feet tall and just over 100 pounds, Davis went off to prison.

But Davis’ story starts even earlier – with a childhood that was anything but easy.

“My destiny was written when I was born into a chaotic family,” Davis told America Tonight in 2013 when we visited him in Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Crest Hill, Illinois. “So being born into that, as many other kids get born into it every day, it's like life is already written for us.”

Davis' father was absent and his mother was a drug addict. His grandmother, who was also caring for a bedridden husband, a son with mental disabilities and other grandkids, became his primary caregiver.

“My grandmother, my heart,” Davis said. “She took care of me and everybody else, you know. But she couldn’t keep an eye on me a lot, or pay as much attention as I needed at the time. So it led me to the streets.”

Davis had his first brush with the law at the age of 9, when he says he was so hungry he attempted to snatch a bag of food from a little girl. His file also shows that a young Davis would bang his head against the wall until it bled, burn himself with cigarettes and wet the bed, Chicago Public Radio reported. He also suffered nightmares, severe insomnia and hallucinations. According to court documents, the juvenile court acknowledged that Davis had fallen through the cracks of the child welfare system.

Davis hoped the court would take details like this into account in his resentencing, along with signs of rehabilitation in prison. But after hearing the judge’s words Monday, he simply bowed his head. As a child in prison, his biggest fear was dying behind bars. Twenty-four years later, that fear remains.

“I don’t want this to be the last thing I see,” Davis said back in 2013. “It’s a whole beautiful world out there and me dying in here, it’s like a nightmare.”

Originally posted on Aljazeera America


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.