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With all due respect to the U.S. Supreme Court, "you can’t factor out the victims"

Dec 13, 2016

Michigan prosecutors have come under national scrutiny for what critics have argued is an effort to ignore, or at least slowly comply with, the recent Supreme Court rulings that require all juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole to have their sentences reconsidered.

We’ve heard from several people in favor of a review and resentencing in every juvenile lifer case, including ACLU attorney Deborah LaBelle, who’s been trying to get the state's prosecutors to do more with juvenile lifers.  

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has been a national leader in arguing against resentencing or granting parole to those already sentenced to mandatory life without parole as juveniles. Schuette’s office declined an interview and referred us to Genesee County Prosecuting Attorney David Leyton.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for those under age 18 was cruel and unusual punishment and, therefore, unconstitutional. But before that ruling, Leyton said prosecutors had “considerable discretion” when it came to life sentences for juveniles convicted of killing someone.

Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton
Credit Courtesy of the Office of the Genesee County Prosecuting Attorney

Although Leyton was confident that, in many instances, juveniles in Michigan have been charged as juveniles, he also explained that, prior to 2012, prosecutors had “a lot of latitude” that could be used, based upon the circumstances of the crime.

And some of that latitude had to do with what prosecutors could charge juvenile defendants as: juveniles, adults left in the juvenile system—which allowed for a blended sentence—or, simply, adults.

Seventeen-year-olds, however, were automatically charged as adults: “That’s Michigan law,” Leyton said. “In Michigan, a seventeen-year-old is considered an adult—it’s unlike many of the other states.”

While there is currently some discussion to change this aspect of Michigan law so that only people over eighteen are considered adults, Leyton said such a change could create complications that would have to be addressed before the law could be changed. 

(This story is part of our series Michigan's Juvenile Lifers: Who Gets a Second Chance?)

"We just followed the law that was imposed by the legislature and the governors of past."

“You’d have to account for 17 year-olds in the juvenile system. You would have to make more funding available for juveniles for rehabilitation purposes — so there’s a number of funding-type issues that would come into play,” he said.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling in 2012, Leyton’s office has continued to see a number of juvenile-life-without-parole cases.

“What I really want to make certain everybody understands is that these cases are the most egregious cases that you see,” he said. “Every single juvenile-life-without-parole case is a case of somebody who’s been convicted of first-degree or felony murder.”

And according to Leyton, Genesee County sees a fair number of these cases. “We have had a first-degree murder case with a defendant as young as 13 years of age.”

In January of 2016, the Supreme Court decided that the 2012 ruling about juvenile-life-without-parole cases should be applied retroactively. This meant that except in “exceedingly rare” cases, people who were convicted as juveniles and sentenced to life in prison prior to 2016 would have to be resentenced.

There were 26 such cases in Genesee County. When asked what resentencing those cases meant for the county prosecutor’s office, Leyton said, “among other things, it meant a lot of work for a staff of prosecutors who are already overworked.”  

“We have probably the highest per-capita case load for criminal prosecutors in the state,” he said of Genesee County. 

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Leyton explained there were logistics issues to contend with as well: “Some of these cases are as old as 50 years. We had to find the files, and oftentimes, that can be difficult for a file that’s not all that old. So we had to find the files, then we had to review them. We had to order records from the Department of Corrections which, in and of itself, was a task. We had to order medical records of the prisoners separately through the Department of Corrections.”

Once the relevant files and records were located, prosecutors presented their assigned cases to Leyton and a panel of top assistants. Then, if further information was needed, there was an additional stage of information gathering. And, finally, the prosecutors had to seek out the victims of the crimes in these cases, which proved difficult.

“Years ago, the investigators were taken out of the county budget, so we have nobody on staff who actually can go out and look for the victims of these crimes,” Leyton explained. “So we were dependent upon the police agencies.”

In the end, it was the Flint Police Department that had to locate the victims in the majority of those 26 cases. “And of course, it’s pretty well-known by now the city of Flint has resource-depletion issues,” said Leyton. He went on to explain that the city's police department is down to 100 officers, when it used to have 300 officers on staff.

“So there’s a whole host of problems that existed in trying to get all the information we needed and to follow the Supreme Court dictate, to follow Michigan law, and to get this right,” he concluded.

Additionally, he wanted to ensure that the victims were not “dealt out of this situation,” and he described the prosecutors of this state—including himself—as “very victim-oriented.”

After reviewing the 26 cases, Leyton decided to uphold 23 of the original life-without-parole sentences.

When asked how to reconcile this outcome with the Supreme Court ruling that maintains such sentences should be “extremely rare,” Leyton said that each case had undergone a “very specific review” and cited the case of Terry Morris, who shot six people to death in a house in Flint in 1987. At the time, he was 17 years old.

"I've seen it all in this county."

“We got his records from the prison, and they weren’t all that impressive, and we made the determination that rehabilitation was not going to be something that he would be successful at, and that he needed to remain as a prisoner who faced life without the possibility of parole,” Leyton said of his decision to uphold Morris’ original sentence.

“That’s just one case. There’s a number of others. I could go on and on,” he said.  

Leyton returned to the rights of victims when asked about the process by which an individual prisoner was decided to be irredeemable: “You can’t factor out the victims, and with all due respect to the United States Supreme Court, I don’t think it really factored in victims’ rights when it made its decision.”

He then explained that Michigan law and Michigan’s constitution require a consideration of victims’ rights when resentencing prisoners and that the prosecutors had taken this into account when reviewing the cases.

He also indicated that part of a consideration of victims’ rights included reaching out to the victims’ families. “It’s a very arduous process because it’s hard to find them, identify them, get them in here. Then you have to walk them through something that was probably the most traumatic episode in their lives,” he said.

In a few instances, the families agreed that the prisoners connected to their cases deserved resentencing. But in most instances, Leyton said the families wanted the prisoners “locked up” without the possibility of parole.

When asked what it would take for him to contradict a family’s wishes and resentence a prisoner, Leyton said he’d have to be convinced that the crime was perpetrated by someone who did not understand the consequences of his or her actions at the time the crime was committed. Additionally, he said the prisoner would need a prison record that demonstrated he or she had made “considerable progress” while being incarcerated.

Find the full conversation above. 

There are more than 350 prisoners in Michigan sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. Michigan's Juvenile Lifers: Who Gets a Second Chance? is Michigan Radio's week-long series looking at juvenile lifers in Michigan, and the efforts to re-sentence many of them.