Locked up for life: Part 2 of a national investigation

(AP) – The impact of last year’s Supreme Court ruling goes far beyond the 2,000-plus offenders who faced mandatory no-parole sentences as teens.

In many states, legal challenges are being mounted on behalf of juveniles sentenced to life without parole at the discretion of a judge or jury, or those who are legally entitled to parole but serving such lengthy terms they are unlikely to ever get out. The latter group encompasses some 7,300 inmates, according to The Sentencing Project. The Supreme Court didn’t specifically address these cases, however, and that’s led to different outcomes.

Tennessee, for example, is so far refusing to resentence its juvenile life-without-parole inmates. That’s because judges and juries have a choice in sentencing, but that choice is between life in prison or life with the possibility of parole after serving 51 years, an option Marsha Levick of the national Juvenile Law Center calls “cruel.”

In Oklahoma, juvenile life without parole isn’t mandatory, either, but unlike in Tennessee, lifers are getting a second chance after a state court said their age at the time of their crimes and efforts to rehabilitate must be considered. Inmates there are now filing motions for reduced sentences, and in Oklahoma County, the state’s largest, First Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland said his office will address each on a case-by-case basis.

“On the one hand this is a mandate from the U.S. Supreme Court, and we have to comply with it,’’ Rowland said. “On the other hand, you’re talking about disturbing sentences on crimes that may be three decades old, and very violent, heinous crimes. So the stakes are high.’’

Responding to the investigation’s findings on Monday, Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, called on the Supreme Court to take additional action.

“Given that the implementation of reform varies dramatically from state to state, as highlighted by the AP series, it’s clear that the U.S. Supreme Court needs to take up this issue again and ban juvenile life without parole once and for all,’’ Lavy said. “Otherwise, a child’s fate in the justice system may be arbitrarily determined by his or her geographic location or race, as opposed to his or her capacity for growth and change.’’

Heinous crimes

It is no exaggeration to say that Evan Miller’s crime was heinous: He and another teen beat Cole Cannon with a baseball bat before setting fire to Cannon’s trailer with him inside. At a resentencing hearing in March, Miller’s lawyers cited his childhood of physical abuse and neglect and argued that at 14, his brain wasn’t fully developed. The prosecution said his actions were those of an adult who acted mercilessly.

Miller apologized to Cannon’s family, but the victim’s daughter, Cheatham, rejected that as insincere, “empty words.’’ She testified of anger and despair. “To bring this up and make the victims’ families relive this, that’s being cruel and unusual,’’ she said.

Under an Alabama law adopted last year, a judge can resentence Miller to life without parole or allow parole after 30 years. A decision is pending.

“These are young Hannibal Lecters,’’ said Sheriff Michael Bouchard in Oakland County, Michigan, where officials want new no-parole sentences in 44 of 49 juvenile-lifer cases. “These are not people you want to meet on the street on a dark night.’’

County prosecutor Jessica Cooper argues all her cases are rare since they comprise just a small portion of all the criminal cases her office has pursued over time.

She did offer possible parole to five offenders, including Jennifer Pruitt, who targeted her 75-year-old neighbor for robbery and then stood by as an accomplice stabbed Elmer Heichel to death.

When Pruitt got life at age 17, the law provided only one other choice for punishment – sentencing her as a juvenile, which meant just three years of court supervision.

In an extraordinary move, the former judge who imposed the sentence in 1993 visited Pruitt in prison last year. Fred Mester found “a new person.’’ He wrote letters to Cooper and a new judge, praising Pruitt for pursuing an education, tutoring others and counseling fellow inmates.

“I was always hopeful that those who were sentenced before me would take advantage of all the programs offered to rehabilitate inmates,’’ he wrote, and Pruitt had “done just that and more.’’

In March, Pruitt was resentenced to 30 to 60 years, making her earliest possible parole date in 2022, when she’s 46. Mester said that’s too long to wait.

“If the criminal justice system has any merit at all,’’ he told the investigation, “I think people should have a second chance.’’

Like Pruitt, other juvenile lifers did not actually kill but rather were convicted of participating in crimes where a companion took a life. And the investigative review found a number of others who long ago rejected plea bargains that would have seen them released already.

Kempis Songster was 15 when he joined another teen in the 1987 Philadelphia drug house stabbing of fellow gang member Anjo Pryce, 17. At trial, Songster turned down a prosecutor’s offer that would have likely seen him do eight to 10 years in prison.

“You walk in there and see that they’re children and you say, ‘Wait a minute,’’’ said Jack McMahon, who offered the plea deal and chalks up Songster’s refusal to youthful bravado. Now a defense attorney, McMahon had offered to testify for him. “So many of the people who are looking at it from the outside in, they want simplistic answers to it: They did the crime, they should do the time. It’s not that simple, and anybody who thinks that just doesn’t know.’’

Prosecutors recently offered a new sentence that would have made Songster eligible for parole in five years. Now 45, Songster sought less time. A judge on July 24 resentenced him to 30 years to life, making him eligible for parole in September.

The victim’s father said the slaying shattered his family. “I know we want to get somebody released from prison and all, but there’s a victim here who’s never going to be released from where he is,’’ Errol Pryce said in court.

Nearly two-thirds of juvenile-lifer inmates are African American, according to a 2015 report by Phillips Black, a public interest law firm that analyzed data from corrections departments. And since 1992, the report said, a Black juvenile arrested for homicide was twice as likely as a White teen to be sentenced to life without parole.

Most juvenile lifers also come from troubled backgrounds. A 2012 survey by The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, found that nearly 60 percent had a close relative in prison, almost half had been physically abused as children, and about 80 percent reported violence at home. That is not an excuse for criminal behavior, but it puts it into context, defense lawyers and some experts say.

Ahmad Williams’ mother, a crack addict, died when he was 10. The grandmother who raised him in Grand Rapids, Michigan, died soon after. By the time Williams shot and killed Derrick Pimpleton in a simmering feud, he was smoking marijuana daily and attending school just a few days a month. Both boys were 15.

“I didn’t think for myself. I was basically a follower,’’ Williams, now 35, said from prison. He wanted to imitate older guys who took and sold drugs in his neighborhood, he said, because “I thought that was fun. … I was doing what I thought a regular 15 year old would do.’’

At a resentencing hearing last fall, Danneka Cooper, the victim’s sister, testified that 18 years wasn’t enough time to make up for her family’s loss. “He broke my mother’s heart,’’ she said. Williams apologized. His new sentence makes him eligible for parole in early 2025.

Waiting out time

In Michigan, Williams and Bobby Hines are among about 86 juvenile lifers resentenced so far. Prosecutors sought stays in almost all the other cases until the state Supreme Court, weighing appeals of two new no-parole sentences, decides whether judges or juries should hear them.

Hines, meanwhile, is the only one of the three teens convicted of killing Warren who is still serving time. Back in 1989, he rejected an offer to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of 20 to 40 years. “When you’re 15 years old and someone tells you 20 years in prison, it is longer than you’ve been alive,’’ his attorney, Valerie Newman, said.

In his first decade in prison, Hines racked up about a dozen misconduct tickets, many for fighting. But he eventually settled down, comforted by his mother, Gracie, who lobbied for his release before her death. He earned his GED certificate, enrolled in self-improvement programs and developed a reputation as a solid worker in maintenance, kitchen and recreation jobs.

At his resentencing hearing in March, Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway takes that all into account. Wiping away tears, the victim’s father, Henry Carpenter Warren Jr., told her Hines “was punished excessively. … He can go home today.’’

In the end, Hathaway hands down a sentence – 27 to 60 years – that makes Hines immediately eligible for parole. He is due to be released Sept. 12.

“I hope that my decision today will not come back to haunt me,’’ the judge said.

On his first day of freedom, Hines said, he intends to visit his mother’s grave. Eventually, he wants to meet with the family of his victim.

“I pray for him,’’ said the dead man’s sister, Valencia Warren Gibbs. “I just want him to be OK.’’

Hines, too, is hopeful.

“I always tell people I don’t know what I’m going to do,’’ he said in an interview from prison. “But I know what I’m not going to do – and that’s get in trouble.’’

This article is part of a four-part series that will run through August.

Sheila Burke, Sean Murphy, Juliet Linderman, Mariah Brown and many other AP reporters across the nation contributed to this report.

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