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Locked up for life: Part 1 of a national investigation

A patchwork of justice for juvenile lifers

SHARON COHEN and ADAM GELLER | 8/14/2017, 12:32 a.m.
Courtroom 801 is nearly empty when guards bring in Bobby Hines, hands cuffed in front of navy prison scrubs.
Henry Carpenter Warren Jr. addresses the court during a resentencing hearing for his son's killer, Bobby Hines, seated left, at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit, March 16. Warren says Hines "was punished excessively. ... He can go home today." Carlos Osorio

DETROIT (AP) – Courtroom 801 is nearly empty when guards bring in Bobby Hines, hands cuffed in front of navy prison scrubs.

It’s been more than 27 years since Hines stood before a judge in this building. He was 15 then, just out of eighth grade, answering for his role in the murder of a man over a friend’s drug debt. He did not fire the deadly shot, but when he and two others confronted 21-year-old James Warren, Hines said something like, “Let him have it.” Those words sealed his conviction and punishment: mandatory life with no chance for parole.

The judgment came during a tough-on-crime era in America. Stoked by fears of teen “superpredators,” many states enacted laws to punish juvenile criminals like adults and the U.S. became an international outlier, sentencing offenders under 18 to live out their lives in prison for homicide and, in rare instances, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery.

There has since been a significant shift. Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases. Last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get a chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.

But prison gates don’t just swing open. Instead, uncertainty and opposition stirred by the new mandate have resulted in an uneven patchwork of policies as courts and lawmakers wrestle with these complicated, painful cases. The odds of release or continued imprisonment vary from state to state, even county to county, in a pattern that can make justice seem arbitrary.

The Associated Press surveyed all 50 states to see how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are re-examining juvenile lifer cases. Some have resentenced and released dozens of those deemed to have rehabilitated themselves and served sufficient time. Others have delayed review of cases, skirted the ruling on seeming technicalities or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.

Many victims’ relatives are also battling to keep these offenders in prison. They “already had their chance, their days in court, their due process,” said Candy Cheatham. Her father, Cole Cannon, was killed in 2003 in Alabama by Evan Miller, the 14-year-old whose no-parole sentence was the basis for the 2012 sentencing ban.

But in Hines’ case, James Warren’s family is forgiving. And his crime was committed in a county whose prosecutor has offered parole-eligible terms to dozens of these offenders.

So Hines, now 43 years old, whiskers tinged with gray, is back in court to make a case for himself.

“As a man, I take full ownership for what I did,” he told the judge. “I tore their family up, and I didn’t even realize what I was doing.”

Hines bows his head when a woman stands to address the judge.

“He was 15 years old. I forgave him the day that it happened,” said the murdered man’s sister, Valencia Warren Gibbs, as her lips began to tremble. “I want him to be out. I want him to give himself a chance that he didn’t give himself ... that day.”