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U.S. judge: All Michigan juvenile lifers eligible for parole

By Diane Bukowski | Last updated: Mar 29, 2013 - 11:43:13 AM

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DamionTodd (r) with brother John Meyers and mother Pamela Todd.
DETROIT ( - A federal district court judge ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama/Jackson v. Hobbs, which made mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional in June of 2012, is retroactive and applies to all of Michigan’s juvenile lifers, those sentenced to death in prison while they were under the age of 18.

The decision means all juvenile lifers are now eligible for parole, says Deborah LaBelle, attorney for the plaintiffs, calling it a significant victory.

According to varying sources, there are from 362 to 371 juvenile lifers in Michigan’s prison system, 70 percent of them prisoners of color. Many have spent decades behind bars. Michigan has the second highest number of juvenile lifers among the states. Before the Miller decision, the U.S. was the only country in the world that allowed juvenile life without parole.

“Indeed, if ever there was a legal rule that should—as a matter of law and morality—be given retroactive effect, it is the rule announced in Miller,” said Judge O’Meara, ruling in Hill v. Snyder. “To hold otherwise would allow the state to impose unconstitutional punishment on some persons but not others, an intolerable miscarriage of justice.”

Although Hill v. Snyder is not a class action case, involving just 13 named plaintiffs, Judge O’Meara extended the reach of his ruling, setting precedent for all Michigan juvenile lifers.

Judge O’Meara said he did not have jurisdiction to grant the plaintiffs’ request for re-sentencing. But he ruled, “The court declares M.C.L. 791.234(6) [Michigan life without parole statute] unconstitutional as it applies to these Plaintiffs . . . As a result, Plaintiffs will be eligible and considered for parole. It remains to be determined how that process will work and what procedures should be in place to ensure that Plaintiffs are fairly considered for parole.”

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and a state appeals court, ruling in Michigan v Carp, had contended that the Miller ruling applies only to new sentences, dashing the fervent hopes of Michigan’s juvenile lifers. An application for leave to appeal to the state Supreme Court has now been filed by Carp’s attorneys.

 “We are reviewing the [Hill] decision and considering options for appeal,” Joy Yearout, Attorney General Schuette’s director of communications, said in a statement. “Attorney General Schuette … will continue to fight for crime victims and their families, who should not be forced to relive these horrific crimes at parole hearings.”

Most recently, Mr. Schuette trumpeted his success in making Michigan a “four strikes and you’re out” state.

“Gov. Rick Snyder has signed into law the Violent Offense-Fourth Felony (VO-4) legislation, which requires at least 25 years in prison for violent repeat offenders. Attorney General Bill Schuette proposed the law as part of his public safety plan,” his office said in a release “SB 1109 is now Public Act 319 of 2012.”

This act will likely swell the ranks of Michigan’s prison population, which the MDOC reported as 42,904 at the end of 2011. Michigan spends over $2 billion a year on its prison system, one-fourth of the state’s general funds, and is one of only four states in the country to spend more on prisons than education.

Judge O’Meara noted the recalcitrance of Michigan’s state courts and government in his decision.

“It may be that Plaintiffs are granted new sentencing hearings in state court, which may obviate the need for changes in the parole system,” he said. “It appears, however, that the State and state courts (see Carp) intend to resist granting such hearings. Under these circumstances, the court believes that compliance with Miller and Graham requires providing a fair and meaningful possibility of parole to each and every Michigan prisoner who was sentenced to life for a crime committed as a juvenile.”

Juvenile lifer Edward Sanders, incarcerated since 1975 at the age of 17, said, “This now puts Michigan’s law makers in the position to act and get off the sidelines. All the former youths are elated as well here at Kinross Correctional Facility and hoping for change soon. No more file reviews, no more five year reviews, no more not giving reasons for passing over us. Both the court of appeals and the U.S. federal court there have agreed that the Michigan lifer law statute is unconstitutional as it applies to youth serving life without parole.”

He noted that Michigan’s oldest juvenile lifer, Sheldry Topp, 67, who has spent 49 years behind bars for a crime committed when he was 17, just received another parole denial from the state parole board, meaning he will have to wait another five years for consideration under the current statute.

The Catholic Church Council of Bishops, ACLU, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were among organizations that opposed the Michigan law.

Damion Todd was sentenced at the age of 17 to life without parole in 1986.

“I was totally overwhelmed,” he reacted. “I guess the best way that I can describe it was surreal. The morale is high with the men that I have spoken to. … From a personal standpoint, while never glorifying this tragic ordeal, I yearn for opportunity to educate not only at-risk youth, all youth.

“The consequences of one bad choice will not only change the course of your life, but it will also administer so much psychological harm and pain on the lives of people that you don’t even know. As a man, I refuse to allow anyone’s life that has been tragically lost go in vain, and not at least try to open the eyes and ears of some at-risk youth. So Judge O’Meara’s decision, the work of Deborah LaBelle and all the lawyers who have assisted her with the body of work that she has put forth, is monumental,” he said.

Attorney Deborah LaBelle represented the plaintiffs on behalf of the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the wake of the Miller ruling, Atty. LaBelle has coordinated a coalition of progressive attorneys and organizations which have pledged to represent every one of the state’s juvenile lifers for free if need be. The organizations include the ACLU, the State Appellate Defenders’ Office, the University of Michigan Juvenile Justice Law Clinic, and the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan.