Opinion recap: Narrow ruling on young murderers’ sentences

Originally posted Mon, June 25th, 2012

Lyle Denniston Reporter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plain English summary

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

Trouble in Sumner home boiled before double slayings

Originally Posted October 21st The Tennessean

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friend's dad uneasy

After arriving in Tennessee, the teenager befriended Chase Vinson.

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

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

Vinson’s instincts were right.

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

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

The cases were pending when the Moores were killed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flawed objections to juvenile law reform

Originally Posted October 5, 2011 boston.com by James Alan Fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally Published September 16th Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

By John Lash

John Lash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Lash SmallJohn Lash

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

Abolish juvenile life without parole in Mass.

Originally Posted September 21st 2011 boston.com

By James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment

The existing Massachusetts law for trying and punishing juveniles charged with murder, arguably the stiffest in the United States in terms of breadth and rigidity, was enacted amidst a climate of fear fueled by wide-ranging media hype about juvenile violence. Not only was the 1996 statute crafted in the wake of a particularly heinous juvenile murder case locally, but lawmakers around the country responded to warnings about the increasing numbers of the young and the ruthless.

As it happened, the early 1990s spike in juvenile homicide did not persist, but vanished as the new millennium approached. The 1990s drop in juvenile murder has been linked to smarter policing, crack-downs on illegal gun trafficking, increased anti-gang efforts, successful crime prevention programming, demographic trends, and especially shifting drug markets, but not to changes in the way in which juveniles were prosecuted.

It may be tempting to suggest that the 1996 statute was responsible for the diminished problem of youth homicide locally over the past decade and a half. However, as should be clear in the figure below, the welcome decline in juvenile murder started years prior to 1996. In addition, juvenile murder rates declined nationally, not just in Massachusetts with our particularly harsh approach to punishing juveniles and not just in other states that have juvenile life without parole laws on the books. The rate of juvenile murder declined in states that did not take such extreme measures.

j h o r

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the data. I have analyzed juvenile murder trends state-by-state in order to estimate the effect of the 1996 statute on juvenile homicide rates here in the Commonwealth. I can report that current law, requiring that all juveniles as young as 14 be tried as adults and sentenced to life without parole if convicted of first-degree murder, has not reduced the rate of juvenile murder whatsoever.

The statute’s lack of impact reflects on two factors. First, juvenile life without parole has no greater deterrent effect than, say, a  15- or 20-year prison sentence, which was the law in Massachusetts prior to the 1996 statute. Given their relatively immature level of cognitive and emotional development, adolescents are much more influenced by present day incentives for committing crime than by future consequences should they be caught. In addition to the failure of deterrence, the dozens of juveniles currently serving life without parole in Massachusetts under existing law would still be incarcerated today had the 1996 statute never been passed. That is, a 15-year minimum penalty for juvenile murder, which was prescribed under the previous law and is included among the reforms proposed in S. 672 and H. 1346 (An Act Relative to the Sentencing of Children), currenly being considered by the Joint Committee on the Judicary, would still have these convicted murderers behind bars.

The pending legislation does not  not propose a return to the antiquated system in place prior to the 1990s whereby youngsters charged with murder were retained in the juvenile court unless selectively transferred for criminal prosecution. Rather, the proposed bill would have juvenile murderers incarcerated for 15 years at the very least, thereby keeping them off the streets through their violence-prone years, and even longer should the parole board consider them to be a continuing threat to public safety. But for those whose criminal history is indeed history, keeping them incarcerated for life, well past the point of dangerousness, makes little policy sense. Not only does it use up scarce prison space, but it fails to recognize that people can change and sometimes a second chance is in order.

Over the past decade, many states around the country have reconsidered their approach to punishing juveniles, repealing some the harsh approaches implemented during the 1990s hype and hysteria. Even the state of Texas abolished life without parole for juveniles. It is time for Massachusetts to do the same.

* * *

Note; This is an expanded version of my testimony on September 20, 2011 before the Massachusetts Senate and House Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

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

Appeals court allows life sentences for juveniles

Originally Published September 7th Associated Press

By GREG BLUESTEIN Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) -- A federal appeals court on Wednesday held that juveniles convicted of murder can be sentenced to life in prison without parole, seeking to settle a lingering debate over how the courts punish minors who commit serious offenses.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death and that they also can't be sentenced to life in prison without parole for rape and other non-homicide offenses. The ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, though, upheld life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.

The decision came in the case against Kenneth Loggins, who was convicted in Alabama of killing a hitchhiker in 1994 and originally sentenced to die. He was 17 at the time of the killing, so his punishment was reduced to life without parole because the Supreme Court banned such executions in 2005.

His attorneys had urged the three-judge panel to broaden a 2010 Supreme Court by including murders as an offense that can't carry a life sentence. That 5-4 ruling held that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole if they haven't killed anyone, and ordered the courts to allow them a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release."

But prosecutors argued that the high court took pains to specify the ruling only applied in non-homicide cases, and the 11th Circuit said it found no reason to toss out Loggins' prison sentence.

The decision, written by Circuit Judge Ed Carnes, said "there's nothing in law or logic" to support the argument that a state shouldn't be allowed to impose the next most severe punishment if a death penalty sentence is banned.

The 11th Circuit has jurisdiction over federal cases in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, but lawyers in other areas will likely use the opinion to back up their own arguments.

Carnes had been the head of Alabama's capital punishment unit before he joined the court in 1992. He also wrote that the state shouldn't be blocked from imposing the prison sentence because it "lacked the clairvoyance to know that the Supreme Court would do an about-face and rule out death sentences for seventeen-year-old murderers."

In the decision, he said only a few jurisdictions have repealed laws permitting life without parole sentences for homicides committed by juveniles, and that the national consensus seems to be in favor of keeping those laws on the books.

"The long-term national trend is not away from life without parole sentences for homicides committed by juveniles but toward them," he said.
The ruling comes in a case involving the gruesome murder of Vickie Deblieux, who was picked up by Loggins and three other teens and taken to a secluded rural area as she was traveling to her mother's home in Louisiana.

One of the men hit Deblieux in the head with a beer bottle and then tackled her when she tried to run away, and all four savagely kicked her, the court said. When they realized she was still alive after the vicious beating, Loggins stood on her throat until she died, the ruling said.

Loggins and two others later mutilated the body by cutting off her fingers and thumbs and removing part of a lung. They were arrested after one of the teens was reported to have been showing one of the victim's severed fingers to friends.

The three others - who were 19, 17 and 16 at the time of the killing - were also convicted of the slaying and sentenced to either death or life in prison.

John Lash on Trying Children as Adults

Originally Posted August 31st 2011 Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

By John Lash

John Lash

There are numerous issues surrounding trying juveniles as adults – particularly in cases where the possibility of life without parole exists. The ideas that shaped juvenile justice for over a hundred years have been degraded and attacked, particularly in state government, with a view that juveniles deserve harsher punishment. These ideas fit the overarching “tough on crime” view of many politicians (and often their constituents). But does this view reflect reality, or is it a political convenience that preys on the pain of victims and the fear of the public?

Some argue that juveniles are responsible for their actions, that they are in essence miniature adults who deserve what they get. They would have us believe that juveniles are in fact beyond redemption, and that they can predict which children will not change. Others argue the opposite. These issues are hotly debated in the United States, where the situation is complicated by state jurisdiction over laws, but the problem is not unique to our country. Internationally the United States is an exception to the norm. As of 2009 more than 190 countries ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, which opposes life without parole for juveniles. The exceptions were the U.S. and Somalia. This is not to suggest that international law supersedes U.S. law, but that we might reexamine our own policies in light of world opinion.

One instance where juvenile violence and restoration arise is in conflicts that involve children as combatants. Child soldiers are employed across the globe, and often they are involved in atrocities. Some of these children were abducted, some volunteered, and some had no other options. Many committed war crimes under duress or threats against their lives, but some of them committed terrible acts of their own volition. One of the most difficult issues of these conflicts is how to treat these children when captured or at the end of hostilities. How can these kids be reintegrated into civil society, especially after learning to perpetrate violence as a way of life? How can they be held accountable for their actions while still acknowledging their lessened culpability? The situations are not exactly the same, but there are enough similarities that a comparison might benefit us.

Many of the questions that arise can be applied to both examples. How do we respect the rights of the victims? How do we evaluate the offender? How do we balance retribution, restoration, and safety? In most of the world, even in places where child soldiers are common, there is an acknowledgement that youth is a mitigating factor, that kids can change, and that they can be brought back into the community. Perhaps these views can be adopted here, along with some means of keeping the public safe as well.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles couldn’t be executed. In 2010 the court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes. I hope that this represents a trend toward reinstating the ideas that formed juvenile justice, that kids by their nature are less culpable and more malleable than adults, and consequently should be treated in a different way. Acknowledging this does not eliminate or deny the need for protecting society or seeing justice done.

I believe that a way to balance these considerations can be found. The possibility of parole is not the same as a guarantee of parole. If an individual is deemed to be dangerous, or not to have served enough time (whatever that might be), then he remains imprisoned. Sometimes he remains imprisoned until death. By the same measure, if he is deemed to be rehabilitated, to have learned from his experience how to exist in society, then society has the option to extend mercy. It seems unlikely to me that we could reasonably determine what course an individual’s life might take. To impose a sentence that allows for parole, but does not guarantee it seems a good balance to me. I do not believe that it is an either/or proposition. The needs of all parties can be considered and valued. Justice and mercy are not incompatible.

John Lash 2

John Lash

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

Bill could give juvenile lifers a chance for parole

Originally Posted September 2, 2011 KALW NEWS by Nancy Mullane

Jenn Vargas

Last week in Sacramento, lawmakers narrowly rejected SB9, a bill that would have impacted hundreds of prison inmates who were sentenced as juveniles to serve life sentences without the possibility of parole. After some slight adjustments, it’s up for reconsideration, as early as next week. KALW’s Ben Trefny spoke with the bill’s author, Senator Leland Yee, about its significance.

SENATOR LELAND YEE: The United States is the only country in the world that has this sentence, that if you commit a horrible crime when you are underage, you will be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. It is an unconscionable reputation that we have. This is barbaric, and we ought not to ever have this on our shoulders, but unfortunately we are the only country that still has this sentence. And so what I would really like to do is ban it, but the reality in politics is that you have to look for compromises. So the bill we have now basically says: If in fact you have this particular sentence, you have to serve that sentence for 15 years, at which time you have to then petition the court to review your sentence. And you have to demonstrate to the court that you have been rehabilitated, that you’ve gotten your GED, you’ve demonstrated remorse, accepted responsibility, really turned your life around. So you’ve really got a high hurdle to pass to demonstrate to the courts that you ought to be given a second chance.

BEN TREFNY: Like any potential parolee, right?

YEE: Exactly. And so hopefully this will give kids a second chance. I’ve always said that our society is defined by how we treat our children, and for us to simply throw away the key for our kids, is something that I just cannot imagine.

One of the inmates Yee’s bill would affect is Elizabeth Lozano, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.

ELIZABETH LOZANO: When you tell a youth life, they want people to realize these were really kids, hold them accountable, give them 20 years, but don’t tell them they are going away for life.

Lozano told her story to Nancy Mullane, who stopped by the KALW studios to speak with news director Holly Kernan.

*     *     *

NANCY MULLANE: I met Elizabeth Lozano in prison, down in Chowchilla, where she’s been serving a juvenile life without parole sentence. When she was 16, Elizabeth Lozano was out with a group of people, and a crime was committed of murder. At that time, because she didn’t commit the murder, she did not think that she would be held accountable.

One of her parents lived in Mexico, so when they heard about this crime, they sent her to live in Mexico for a couple of years. She came back to the United States at the age of 18, and shortly thereafter was arrested and tried for the murder of the crime that happened when she was 16. At that time – when she was actually convicted and found guilty – she was pregnant.

HOLLY KERNAN: Was she the murderer?

MULLANE: No. In fact, that’s the interesting thing about individuals serving juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole in California: 45% of the nearly 300 didn’t commit the murder. But they were convicted under something called the Felony Murder Rule – which means they were either there when it happened, or they aided and abetted in a crime that was related to the murder.

When I spoke with Elizabeth Lozano, we were sitting in the cafeteria at the central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Here she is, describing what passage of SB9 would mean to her case.

ELIZABETH LOZANO: This passage does not mean my freedom; it’s not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. I have to prove to these people that I’m ready to go home – it does not mean that I will go home. But it gives me hope; it means that I wasn’t sentenced to a death sentence. Because that’s how it feels. Life without parole is another death sentence in here.

It just gives me hope. I feel like they’re throwing away the youth, and they could rehabilitate and help them.

MULLANE: What do you most look forward to when you get out?

LIZANNO: My son, my family … I don’t care about food, I don’t care about clothing, none of that. My brothers were teenagers when I left them, and now they’re grown men with their children. I just want have them in one room, and spend the night in one room – that’s it.

KERNAN: Lozano is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, for a crime she was involved in when she was a minor, when she was 16 years old. So tell me, Nancy – how common is a story like Elizabeth Lozano’s?

MULLANE: Well, in California there are almost 300 individuals who were younger than 18 when they committed a crime. They were either there when the crime of murder happened, or they committed the crime. Forty-five percent of those didn’t commit the crime of murder, but were charged with murder. These nearly 300 people are now serving sentences called life without parole; we call it JLWOP: juvenile life without parole. So these people will never get out of prison in California. That’s why Senator Leland Yee introduced this bill.

KERNAN: What exactly would the bill do – and who qualifies?

MULLANE: The bill was initially introduced a couple of years ago, as SB399. That bill made it through the Senate; it made it through the Assembly, the Assembly Public Safety Committee; but then it didn’t get the votes that would qualify it for passage in the floor of the full Assembly. So Senator Leland Yee has reintroduced this bill, as SB9. Now, SB9 has also passed through the Senate, and now it’s gone through the Assembly Public Safety Committee, the Assembly Appropriations Committee, and last week, on August 25, it came up before the full floor of the Assembly, where it got 40 of the 41 necessary votes.

This bill would apply to individuals who were convicted of murder in California – either under the Felony Murder Rule, or for committing a murder themselves – if they committed the murder before they were 18. If it’s passed, under the reconsideration vote that will be taken probably next week, it will allow these individuals – after they have served 15 years – to ask the judge of the sentencing court to sentence them to life with the possibility of parole. Now, that would mean a sentence of 25 years to life. And they would have to serve all 25 years, if the judge agrees with their petition and sentences them to life with.

KERNAN: What are the critics of this bill saying? What’s their argument?

MULLANE: One of the arguments is actually coming out of San Francisco Assemblyperson Fiona Ma’s office – she has voted “no” on this bill repeatedly. This morning, her office gave me one of her criteria for a “yes” vote on the bill: in order for the sentencing court to consider the lifer’s petition for re-sentencing, the surviving victims of the person who was murdered would have the authority to determine whether it should go to the sentencing court. Now, I spoke to an attorney who has been promoting the bill, and she said she thought that might be unconstitutional. But according to Fiona Ma’s chief of staff, that is her criterion for passage of the bill.

KERNAN: Let’s bring this back to Elizabeth Lozano, whose story you told us. I understand that the family’s been fighting for several bills like this in the past.

MULLANE: Yeah – when I met her, I was there for a day that they have every year, where children come to visit their parents. Her son came in, and he was almost 16, and he had fuzz on his face. And really, unless this bill passes, she has no hope of ever getting out of prison.

Now, if this bill were to pass – if they were to get that one extra vote – it would mean that, after someone like Elizabeth Lozano had served the 15 years, she would then petition the judge, and if the judge agreed with her, she would then have to go before the parole board. And the parole board only finds somewhere between 4% and 10% suitable, out of all the thousands that go before them. Based on California law, once the parole board has found her suitable, she would still have to go before the governor – and the governor at that point, after 150 days, could decide whether to agree with the parole board or reverse the parole board.

So the chances of Elizabeth Lozano actually getting out of prison if SB9 is passed are still minimal at best. But what this does is it gives these individuals hope. It gives them the sense that if they do everything right – if they do everything to rehabilitate, everything to reform – this gives individuals hope. Now, whether nor not they ever get out – that’s something for the courts, something for the parole board, something for the governor to decide.

Nancy Mullane is the author of Life After Murder, due to be published in 2012.

Byron Williams: Once again, sanity loses in juvenile offender debate

Originally Posted August 27th Oakland Tribune

Juvenile offenders housed at the Muriel Wright Center in San Jose line up to head to lunch August...

Is it cruel and unusual punishment to sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole and without the possibility of sentence review? That was the legislative question considered this week in Sacramento.

But after lawmakers in the Assembly deadlocked at 36 votes for and against a bill to create such a review process, it became clear that once again in California's corrections system common sense has become the sworn enemy of public policy?

Senate Bill 9, sponsored by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, was hardly an apologist for heinous crimes committed by youth. It merely would have given offenders sentenced as minors to life without parole a chance to request a parole hearing.

Beyond the cacophony, fear and emotion that drive so much of the state's reactionary public policy, SB9 would have returned a small measure of sanity to the corrections system.

Supported by child advocates, mental-health professionals and civil-rights groups, the legislation would have provided an opportunity, after many years of incarceration, for review and resentencing for youths sentenced to life without parole.

It called for specific criteria and an intense, three-part review process that would result in the possibility of a lesser sentence for those offenders who have matured and proven themselves to have changed.

Moreover, it would have curbed the alarming trend of the state locking up minors and throwing away the key.

California is second only to Pennsylvania as the state with the most youth serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Under SB9, those sentenced to life without parole as minors could have petitioned a court to review his or her case after serving between 10 and 25 years in prison. If the offender met certain criteria, the court would review the case and decide, after listening to all sides, if a lower sentence should be imposed.

Not all petitioners would get a new sentencing hearing and those who did would have no guarantee of getting a lesser sentence. Even if resentenced, offenders must still face a parole board and must prove parole is merited.

The bill did not guarantee parole, only the opportunity to earn it.California also has the honor of possessing the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in the imposition of life without parole for juveniles. African-American youth are sentenced to life without parole at more than 18 times the rate of white youth.

Hispanic youth are sentenced to life without parole five times more often than white youth.According to Human Rights Watch, 45 percent of youth offenders serving life without parole in California were convicted of murder, but were not the ones to actually commit the murder. Moreover, nationally, 59 percent of juveniles sentenced to life without parole are first-time offenders -- without a single crime on a juvenile court record.

SB9 did not ignore that youth do commit terrible crimes. No one receives life without the possibility of parole for stealing a candy bar or spray painting someone's wall. It is a heinous act that involves the taking of a human life.

But there is a plethora of data that reveals young offenders have a greater capacity for rehabilitation. Recent findings in neuroscience confirm that brain maturation is a process that continues through adolescence and into early adulthood, and impulse control, planning, and thinking ahead are skills still in development well beyond age 18.

California has long since discarded any notions that its corrections system would emphasize rehabilitation. The result has been a series of tough-on-crime policies that have proved ineffective and costly.

My concern, before the vote, was that legislation might not have gone far enough. California has the nation's highest recidivism rate.

If the commitment to rehabilitation is not there, then the state is essentially playing musical chairs while feigning a small portion of compassion. Sadly, yesterday's vote confirms many in Sacramento were not ready to risk that possibility.

The Assembly will reconsider the bill in the next few weeks. Let's hope a few lawmakers find their moral compass by adding a modicum of common sense to the state's corrections public policy.

Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or e-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com

Bill to give juvenile lifers a second chance fails

Originally Posted August 26th San Francisco Chronicle

Sacramento --

For the second time in as many years, the Assembly defeated a bill Thursday that would have offered some juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison the opportunity for release - a measure that was adamantly opposed by Republicans and victims' rights groups.

The bill's failure followed more than an hour of contentious debate and several rounds of voting in the lower house, and came despite intense lobbying by Democrats backing the measure, including Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles. At one point after coming within one vote of passing, several Democrats pulled back their support, and SB9 ultimately failed by five votes, 36-36.

A spokesman for Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who authored the bill, said supporters will likely bring the measure up for reconsideration before the Legislature's session ends Sept. 9.

The bill would give inmates who committed a crime as a minor and were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole the hope for eventual release. Under SB9, an offender who has been in prison for at least 15 years, has worked toward rehabilitation and can prove they are remorseful could ask the court to reduce their sentence. If the court agrees, the inmate would receive a new sentence of 25-years to life in prison, and after serving at least 25 years, could appeal to the state's parole board for release.

About 295 California inmates are serving juvenile life without parole sentences - though backers do not think the majority would meet the bill's requirements for securing a new sentence, and note that even if they did, there is no guarantee the parole board will let them out. Supporters have focused on the approximately 45 percent of those inmates that were convicted under California's aiding and abetting law, which allows for a first degree murder conviction of accomplices. They cite cases such as that of 30-year-old Christian Bracamontes, who at the age of 16 was with a friend who shot and killed another teen during a marijuana robbery in Riverside County. Bracamontes is serving life without parole, while the shooter struck a deal with prosecutors and was sentenced to 29-years to life.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, who carried the bill in the lower house, said the measure is a "simple matter."

"You either believe in redemption or you don't," he said. "This bill asks the question, 'Are you are the same person that you were 25 years ago?' It asks the question, 'Are you perfect, or are you a better person than you were 25 years ago? It asks the question, 'Have you ever made a mistake, and have you ever learned from that mistake?' "

Cedillo said members who believe in a human's ability to change should not have a problem supporting the bill; and he and other supporters cited research showing that adolescent brains are still developing.

But Republicans countered that redemption can take place behind bars, and that forcing victims' families to relive brutal crime through additional court and parole hearings would be unfair.

"It seems like we, as a state, are breaking our faith with the victims if we pass this bill," said Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine. "They were promised the criminal justice system will protect them and take care of them, and we are going to renege on that promise, maybe with the best of intentions, but it's wrong for the state of California to do that."

Wagner and others said these sorts of offenders already have the opportunity to ask the governor for a pardon or commutation of their sentence.

In California, juvenile offenders are not eligible for the death sentence, but under a ballot measure approved by voters in 1990 can receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole if they are charged as adults.

The sentence exists in 38 states but is not used in any other countries, according to the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, which sponsored SB9. In 2009, the state of Texas rolled back its version of the law.

Judge tosses Jordan Brown case to juvenile court

Originally Published August 23rd WCN

Boy accused of murdering his dad's girlfriend will not go to trial as an adult

Jordan Brown was in 5th grade and 11-years old at the time of his arrest.

NEW CASTLE, Pa.-- The murder case against a Lawrence County boy charged with killing his father's pregnant fianceé now goes to the juvenile justice system. A Lawrence County judge issued a ruling on Tuesday that Jordan Brown is considered a juvenile meaning the case now goes to juvenile court. He was facing a trial as an adult because Pennsylvania law requires any child accused of murder to stand trial as a adult.

Brown was 11 years old state police alleged he shot and killed his father's pregnant bride-to-be, 26-year old Kenzie Houke, and her unborn baby in 2009 at a Wampum farmhouse.  Brown was arrested and charged with two murder counts.   If he would have gone on trial as an adult and later convicted, he could have become the youngest person ever sentenced to life without parole.

Brown's attorneys have argued that the boy's age should become important to the case as he could benefit from rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system.  A defense psychologist testified in January that an adolescent's brain does not control impulses in a "mature way." The boy remains in an Erie County juvenile detention center where they say he he has shown he is a candidate for rehabilitation.

The matter has been bounced around with appeals and rulings requiring the presiding judge to reconsider the matter.  Now Judge Dominick Motto has ruled the defendant a juvenile.

Brown has remained in custody at a juvenile detention center in Erie since 2009.  If he is convicted of the crimes in juvenile court, he cannot be held in custody beyond his 21st birthday.

“A chance to turn their lives around”

Originally Posted August 23rd California Catholic Daily

Bishops, Jesuits pull out the stops to support bill easing life without parole sentences for juveniles

A group of about 50 people gathered at the headquarters of the California Catholic Conference in Sacramento yesterday morning and then marched to the state capitol, where others joined them in a vigil to support of a bill that would allow judges to reconsider life without parole sentences meted out to juvenile criminals.

The bill in question, SB 9, by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would allow judges to review the cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole after they have served 15 years of their sentence. Judges would be permitted to re-sentence such juveniles to a new sentence of 25 years to life, which would mean they could be considered for parole and perhaps not spend the rest of their lives in prison.

According to Yee, his bill requires that juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole show remorse and progress toward rehabilitation before being allowed to submit a petition for consideration of the new sentence. 
The bill has the strong backing of the California Catholic Conference, the political action arm of the state’s bishops. 
“Sentencing a teenager to prison with no opportunity for parole completely eliminates any possibility of rehabilitation,” the bishops said in a statement on SB 9. “Young people should have a chance to turn their lives around.”

The bill, already approved by the state Senate, passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Aug. 17, and is scheduled for a vote in the state Assembly this week. If it passes, it would then go to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

“There is no question that youth who commit crimes should be held accountable -- but in a way that reflects their age and their capacity for rehabilitation,” said the Catholic Legislative Network in an Aug. 22 email. “SB 9 recognizes that young people have the capacity to change and should have access to the rehabilitative tools to do so.” (The Catholic Legislative Network operates under the auspices of the California Catholic Conference.)

There are currently 295 California inmates serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were 18 years old. Most were convicted of murder, though some of them did not kill anyone but participated as accomplices in crimes in which the victim was killed.

Also issuing an “action alert” urging support for SB 9 and calling for participation at yesterday’s capitol vigil was the California Province of the Society of Jesus.

“As you are well aware, the California Province of the Society of Jesus is committed to ministry with people who are incarcerated, their victims, and the families of all those affected by their crimes,” said the Jesuit alert. “Through the work of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, headed by Mike Kennedy, SJ and Homeboy Industries, headed by Greg Boyle, SJ, hundreds of people throughout the province have come to know the tragic reality that youth offenders in the state of California are regularly sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Effectively, these young men and women are sentenced to death behind bars for crimes that they committed at an age when they are incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions. One of the social priorities of the California Province is to participate in the transformation of our culture of incarceration into a culture that seeks restoration. The following action alert is an opportunity for everyone who lives in California in the province to participate in the beginning of such a transformation.”

“As people of faith, the California Province joins the California Catholic Conference and representatives from many other faith traditions in a common commitment to redemption and healing for all those affected by crime and violence,” said the Jesuit action alert. “On August 22nd, 2011 people of faith across the state of California will pray, meditate, and reflect on healing for all those affected by serious crime. We will remember victims, communities, offenders, and others. We will ask that Senate Bill 9 -- which creates the possibility for judges to review the juvenile sentence of life without the possibility of parole for certain inmates under in very limited circumstances -- be passed, allowing youth sentenced to life without parole a possible second chance.”

According to the Jesuit action alert, yesterday’s events not only included a “reflection” outside the capitol building. Participants also were asked to “go into the Capitol together to assigned locations in hallways for a vigil and presence,” as well as to lobby legislators.

Even in California’s Democrat-dominated legislature, similar measures have failed in the past because of what the Los Angeles Times characterized as some Democrats' “fear of being labeled soft on crime.”

Murder Victim Family Members and Families of Youth Sentenced to LWOP Join Together

Originally Posted August 20th Fair Sentencing for Youth

On August 17th, murder victim family members and family members of youth sentenced to LWOP joined together with  students and others at the Capitol in support of SB 9. Groups met with legislators and staff and told their personal stories, explaining why theysupport fair sentencing for youth.

U.S. is only nation where juveniles can serve life sentence, should that change?

Originally Posted August 17th 89.1 Souther California Public Radio

Davis Turner-Pool/Getty Images


The California legislature on Wednesday will vote on the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, or SB 9, which would enable juvenile offenders to petition the courts for changes in their life sentences.

Sponsored by Democratic senator and child psychologist Leland Yee of San Francisco, SB 9 is trying to reform the state’s current practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole, which was instituted after California voters approved Proposition 115 in the wake of a 1980s crime spike.


SB 9 would permit inmates who had exhibited signs of rehabilitation and remorse to ask for a case review after 15 years of incarceration, in which they could be re-sentenced to 25 years to life. After serving 25 years, offenders would be eligible for parole, though they would need to go before a special board for examination prior to their release.

Adam Keigwin, Yee's cheif of staff, told Patt Morrison that nearly 300 Juveniles are serving these no-parole sentences in California prisons, and that some are serving them unjustly. “Half of these kids who are serving parole were not the trigger person, they were a look out, they were found guilty of being an accomplice." Under California's felony murder rule, the accomplice can be found as legally culpable as the actual killer.  "Sometimes they didn't even realize a murder was going to take place,” say Keigwin. “They thought they were robbing a store and something went horribly wrong.”

Critics point out that America is currently the only nation in the world to uphold this type of policy. Opposition in Texas already banned a bill similar to Prop. 115 in 2009, and in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court found the practice unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the cruel and unusual clause of the Constitution when minors had not committed murder.

Keigwin says that findings about human brain development were key to Yee's bill.  “We're talking about kids, we're talking about individuals who's brains have not fully matured, who make decisions based upon that immature brain that they would never make years later,” he said. “  And so, all we're saying is fifteen years after the fact, where you are now into your 30s—where your brain is fully developed—and you maybe could make a different decision based on that brain development; that you get that opportunity.”

Daniel Horowitz is a criminal defense and white collar crime attorney. His wife, Pamela Vitale, was brutally murdered murdered by a 16-year-old. That man is serving a life sentence without parole, and Horowitz says Lee's proposal i  “like letting the vampires out to to free the few people who are wrongly committed.”

He says recidivism rates among California criminals are very high, and questions whether or not the remorse these juveniles show is sincere.

Keigwin agrees that the crime against Horowitz's wife was tragic, and says someone murderers like that would never be released. Keigwin says he has not seen a single person released after a 25-to-life sentence commit a heinous crime. He says part of the problem lies with a criminal justice system he says that virtually ignores juveniles sentenced to life. “We lock you up we throw away the key, we don't give you any services whatsoever," said Keigwin, "all that does is really harden this individual.”

Horowitz says this is exactly the reason why these people should not have the option for parole, and says he has asked Lee to consider an alternative plan that changes the prison system and focuses on rehab. 

Important Hearing Set August 17th at 9:00 a.m.

Originally Posted Fair Sentencing for Youth

Please come to a hearing about SB 9 before the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, August 17th at 9:00a.m.  The hearing will take place in Room 4202. Supporters will meet in front of Room 4074 at 8:45 and walk over to the hearing together. If you are able to be there, please let us know by sending an email to ecalvin@hrw.org with the subject line “8/17/11.”

Judge to rule whether teen is tried as adult or juvenile

Originally Posted August 6 Vindy.com

By Mary Grzebieniak


Lawyers for both sides now wait for Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Dominick Motto to rule on whether Jordan Brown will be tried as a juvenile or as an adult in the February 2009 murder of his father’s fianc e and her unborn child.

After a hearing Friday that included no new testimony but only brief statements by lawyers for both sides, Judge Motto took the matter under advisement and said he would rule later.

Judge Motto agreed Friday to consider the record of the hearing that already took place in March 2010, but to eliminate from consideration all testimony by Dr. John S. O’Brien II. The Philadelphia psychologist and lawyer and prosecution witness had testified that Jordan was not amenable to rehabilitation because he would not admit guilt. After the 2010 hearing, Judge Motto had ruled that Jordan was not amenable to rehabilitation and should be tried as an adult. But he was overruled in March 2011 by State Superior Court, which said this violated Jordan’s right against self-incrimination. The case now has been returned to Lawrence County for Judge Motto to again consider whether Jordan will be tried as a juvenile or adult.

Jordan, who will turn 14 this month, remains in the Edmund L. Thomas Adolescent Detention Center in Erie where he has been since shortly after his arrest. He did not appear in court for Friday’s hearing. Atty. David Acker, who, along with Atty. Dennis Elisco, is defending Jordan, said it was not necessary for Jordan to be present because no additional testimony was being offered.

In a brief statement, Acker said Jordan is a “proper and appropriate candidate for the juvenile system” and pointed to Jordan’s good behavior since his arrest as demonstrating the boy’s willingness to work with the juvenile system.

But Pennsylvania Deputy Attorney General Anthony Krastek, who is prosecuting the case, said that in making the decision, the court “can’t just forget about the child’s culpabilities for the horrific nature of the crime” and whether Jordan is amenable to rehabilitation in these circumstances. He said the issue is more than whether Jordan is behaving well in custody. He said the question is what kind of treatment is sufficient if Jordan is guilty of the killings. “You have to show some kind of plan that would address what happened here,” he said after the hearing.

He added that the prosecution has decided to rest on the record instead of calling in another expert witness to replace O’Brien. He pointed out that the burden of proof is on the defense and added, “Our position is that you can’t simply ignore the evidence or facts in this case.”

Acker said he visited Jordan three weeks ago in Erie and that he is happy with his client’s growth and progress. He said the boy is allowed to watch television, read books and play games but rarely goes outside because of a lack of staffing at the facility.

If convicted as an adult, Jordan could be the youngest person in the nation to be sentenced to serve a mandatory life sentence without parole. If tried as a juvenile, however, he could be held only until age 21.

Jordan was an 11-year-old fifth-grader when he was charged with the shotgun slaying of his father’s pregnant fianc e as she lay in bed at the New Galilee farmhouse where they lived. He is accused of killing 26-year-old Kenzie Houk and his unborn half brother and then getting on the school bus and going to school.

Teen Sentenced to life in prison without parole

Originally Posted July 27th 2011 nfwdailynews.com

SHALIMAR — Kyle Walling’s family waved goodbye Tuesday afternoon as he was escorted out of court after he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The 17-year-old Walling was found guilty in June of first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery for his part in the fatal shooting of Christopher Pitcock.

Life without parole was the only sentence he could receive for the felony murder charge. He was also sentence to 15 years for the attempted robbery.

The death sentence was not on the table because of his age. Walling was 16 when Pitcock was killed.

Walling’s mother, Angela Juarez, asked Okaloosa County Circuit Judge William Stone to consider giving her son a lesser sentence.

“I don’t understand how you can spend your first night in jail and never come out,” Juarez said. “The legal system has failed us and will continue to fail if this sentence is upheld.

“Kyle is a wonderful, smart, caring, giving child. A murderer he is not,” she added. “A life sentence will be cruel, harsh and unusual punishment.”

Defense attorney Don Witmyer argued that while Walling was convicted of the murder he did not cause Pitcock’s death.

“A juvenile should not spend the rest of his life in prison,” Witmyer said. “He did not take a life.”

The Navarre teenager’s two-day trial revealed the events of March 4, 2010, and the final moments of Pitcock, a 17-year-old who died of a gunshot wound to the side after a drug deal went awry.

Assistant state attorney Angela Mason argued that Walling’s involvement made him just as accountable as the actual shooter.

During the trial, Mason established that Walling provided accused shooter Timothy Chavers with a .357 Smith & Wesson.

“Kyle Walling should have anticipated a life would be taken,” Mason said at Tuesday’s sentencing. “He gave a trigger-happy Timothy Chavers the gun and told him the first two are blank. Clearly, based on those facts, death was a foreseeable result.”

Stone said he understood Witmyer’s argument, but said he had to uphold the mandatory sentence.

“Mr. Walling is as responsible as the person that committed the act,” Stone said.

Tyree Washington was found guilty of the same charges in February and sentenced the following month to life without parole. Johnathan Lee Louviere pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against two of his co-defendants. He is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 8.

Timothy Chavers, who is accused of shooting Pitcock, has a pre-trial hearing Thursday. His trial is scheduled for the end of September.

David Pitcock, Christopher Pitcock’s father, took the stand Tuesday and addressed the court.

“Christopher David was murdered 461 days ago,” he said crying. “It’s been hard. Thirty minutes before he was saying ‘Daddy, I’ll be back. I love you, Dad.’

“Next thing you know the police are knocking on my door telling me my son’s dead.

“It’s been hard.”

Federal Court Rules ACLU Lawsuit Challenging Juvenile Life Without Parole Can Proceed

Originally Posted July 15th ACLU

CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

DETROIT – A federal judge today allowed an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit challenging Michigan’s juvenile life without parole sentences to proceed. Today’s ruling allows the ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan to prove that Michigan’s sentencing scheme, which denies children a meaningful opportunity for parole, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and violates their constitutional rights.

In his 13-page decision, U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O’Meara allowed one of the plaintiffs, Keith Maxey, to continue with the case. Citing the three-year statute of limitations, he ruled that the other 12 clients waited too long to challenge their sentences. Maxey was 16 in 2007 when he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for his part in a robbery. Michigan law requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies be tried as adults and, if convicted of a homicide offense, sentenced without judicial discretion to life without parole.

The following can be attributed to Deborah Labelle, attorney with the ACLU of Michigan’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative:

“Today’s ruling allows us to prove what many already know – sentencing children to die in prison without giving them an opportunity for parole is inhumane, unfair and unconstitutional. By ignoring a child’s potential for rehabilitation and denying judges and juries any discretion, the state doles out unforgiving sentences that violate basic fairness and human rights principles. This decision is the first step toward correcting this fundamental injustice.”

The following can be attributed to Ezekiel Edwards, staff attorney with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project:

“It is blatantly unconstitutional to deny children any possibility of parole. The United States needs to join the rest of the world and stop the cruel and unusual practice of sentencing kids to spend the rest of their lives in prison.”

A copy of the decision is available online at: www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/hill-v-snyder-opinion

Two serving life get chances at parole

Originally Posted Friday July 15, 2011 Quad-City Times

Two men convicted in a notorious Davenport murder case from 18 years ago are moving closer to freedom.

Anthony Hoeck became eligible for parole Thursday, and his co-defendant, Jason Means, is requesting a parole board hearing.

Craig Smith, a legal consultant working on Means' case, said in a telephone interview Thursday that Means could get a hearing as early as this year.

The men were among six teenagers convicted in the 1993 abduction and killing of

17-year-old Michelle Jensen of Davenport. Juveniles at the time of the crime, Hoeck and Means each were sentenced to life without parole on a first-degree kidnapping charge.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be given life-without-parole sentences for nonhomicide crimes.

Scott County District Judge Gary McKenrick then ruled on Means' case in October and Hoeck's case Thursday, making them eligible.

Read more >>>

Committee Approves Bill to End Life Sentences for Youth

Originally Posted Tuesday, July 05, 2011 Senator LeLand Yee, Ph.D.

Under Yee’s SB 9, California would join the rest of the world by stopping LWOP sentences for kids 

Senator Leland Yee, Ph.D.

SACRAMENTO – On a 5-2 vote, the Assembly Public Safety Committee approved legislation authored by Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) that would bring California in line with the rest of the world by ending life without parole (LWOP) sentences for kids.

While no other country in the world outside of the United States allows children to be sentenced to LWOP, in contrast, there are approximately 290 people in California serving LWOP for crimes they committed as kids.

Under Senate Bill 9, courts could review cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole after 15 years, potentially allowing some individuals to receive a new minimum sentence of 25 years to life. The bill would require the offender to show remorse and be working towards rehabilitation in order to submit a petition for consideration of the new sentence.

“The neuroscience is clear – brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed,” said Yee, who is a child psychologist. “SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors. SB 9 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it is an incredibly modest proposal that respects victims, international law, and the fact that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults.”

At today’s hearing, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón testified in support by saying, “I recognize the ability of young people to reform their behavior and be rehabilitated as they mature. SB 9 holds youth responsible for their actions. It creates a rigorous system of checks and balances, and provides a limited chance for young offenders to prove they have changed – both to a judge and to a parole board.”

Supporters of SB 9 include child advocates, mental health experts, faith communities, and civil rights groups.

“In California, a sentence of life without parole is a sentence to die in prison,” said Elizabeth Calvin, children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Teenagers are still developing.  No one – not a judge, a psychologist, or a doctor – can look at a sixteen year old and be sure how that young person will turn out as an adult. It makes sense to re-examine these cases when the individual has grown up and becomes an adult. There’s no question that we can keep the public safe without locking youth up forever for crimes committed when they were still considered too young to have the judgment to vote or drive.”

Prosecutors and judges have discretion on whether to pursue LWOP for juveniles. However, several cases call such discretion into question.

One such case involves Christian Bracamontes, who was 16 and had never before been in trouble with the law. One day when Christian’s friend said, “Hey do you want to rob this guy?” Christian replied in what can only be described as a quintessential adolescent response, “I don’t care.” When the victim refused to comply with his friend’s demand, Christian said he thought the bluff was called, and he remembered turning away and bending down to pick up his bike and leave, when he heard a gunshot.

The prosecutor offered a lower sentence, but in Christian’s teenaged mind he could not see how he would be responsible for the other person’s actions and he turned down that deal. The DA was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “It’s hard for teenagers to understand concepts like aiding and abetting.” Christian was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

A report published by Human Rights Watch found that in many cases where juveniles were prosecuted with an adult for the same offense, the youth received heavier sentences than their adult codefendants.

Despite popular belief to the contrary, Human Rights Watch found that life without parole is not reserved for children who commit the worst crimes or who show signs of being irredeemable criminals. Nationally, it is estimated that 59% of youth sentenced to life without parole had no prior criminal convictions. Forty-five percent of California youth sentenced to life without parole for involvement in a murder did not actually kill the victim. Many were convicted of felony murder, or for aiding and abetting the murder, because they acted as lookouts or were participating in another felony, such as a robbery, when the murder took place.

California also has the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in the imposition of life without parole for juveniles. African American youth are serving the sentence at a rate that is eighteen times higher than the rate for white youth, and the rate for Hispanic youth is five times higher.

Each new youth offender given this sentence will cost the state upwards of $2.5 million. To continue incarcerating the current population of youth offenders already sentenced to life without parole until their deaths in prison will cost the state close to $700 million.

SB 9 will be heard by the Assembly Appropriations Committee before a vote of full Assembly.  In June, the bill was approved by the Senate on a 21-16 vote.


Contact: Adam J. Keigwin,

(916) 651-4008