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It's illegal to lock a juvenile up forever – unless they're a "rare exception"

Dec 13, 2016

When teenagers commit murder, you can’t treat them the same as adults.

Legally, the U.S. Supreme Court says you can’t just throw teenagers in prison forever, with no chance at parole, except in very rare cases. 

What "rare" really means in Michigan 

Matt Landry was just 21 years old when he was shot and killed, execution style, in an abandoned house in Detroit.

Doreen Landry, his mom, talked to WDIV about Landry’s killers.

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

“The image of them walking Matthew from one house, to another house, and putting him on his knees, putting a gun to the back of his head, and shooting him, is an image that wakes me up in the middle of the night in a panic," she says. "I have to live with that. That’s my life sentence.”

The two guys convicted of killing Landry were teenagers: then-17-year-old Ihab Maslamani, and 16-year-old Robert Taylor. 

With teenagers like this, you cannot automatically lock them up for life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court says children are, by definition, more likely to reform over time.

Except, the court says, for one kind of juvenile offender. As Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Diane Druzinski quoted in her decision in this case: "The rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption." 

Druzinski, who declined to comment for this piece, sentenced both Maslamani and Taylor to prison for life, without parole.

And did you catch the language she’s using? The rare juvenile offender. Whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.

That’s the only time the Supreme Court says you can lock up a teenager for life, with no chance of parole.

Judge Druzinski said even though these two were teenagers when they committed this crime, considering this case and the evidence, she deemed them “irreparably corrupt.” 

But defense attorney Val Newman disagrees. 

How do you decide who is beyond reform? 

“Ihab Maslamani and Robert Taylor are not irreparably corrupt," Newman says. These two teens weren't vicious masterminds meticulously plotting to murder someone, she argues: They decided on the spur of the moment to rob Matt Landry outside a Quiznos. The robbery went bad, they forced Landry into the back of his own car, and drove around with him for hours, making him take money out of an ATM and using it to buy clothes, gas and drugs. 

“That turned into, ‘He’s seen our faces, he knows who were are, oh my God, if we let him go he’s going to tell people who we are,’” Newman argues. In court, she made the case that both Maslamani and Taylor come from abusive homes and experienced repeated trauma and neglect. 

And Newman says Maslamani is showing evidence of maturing, by taking full responsibility for the crime and arguing his co-defendent, Taylor, wasn't involved in the decision to rob or kill Landry. 

But Landry's mother, Doreen, says this was clearly an intentional act of "senseless" violence.  

"There was no remorse," she says. "It was intentional. It was no accident. They don’t have any remorse to this day. They’re just sorry that they got caught. That’s all…I don’t care how people grow up, you know the difference between right and wrong. "

Newman, the defense attorney, also presented evidence from an expert, to answer the question: Are there any teenagers who are so depraved, that they can truly never be reformed? 

“They may exist," says University of Michigan Professor Dan Keating, who specializes in adolescent brain development. "But we wouldn’t know for sure who they are. At that young an age.”

Keating's argument is, basically, there are teenage psychopaths who are fundamentally un-reformable people. But identifying who they are? That takes years. 

He says there are a series of questions to ask in determining that:

  • Are they unable to maintain long term relationships?
  • Do they have a long term pattern of cruelty?
  • Do they have a total lack of empathy?

“Now, we may see signs of that early on," Keating says. "We may see signs of that even in childhood, people are studying that.”

But looking at a 16 or 17 year old and saying: That is your essential, permanent personality, and it will never change? "That is something I think is very hard to predict," he says. 

But the judge in the Landry case was not convinced.

She sentenced both Maslamani and Taylor, who are now ages 24 and 23, to life without parole. Doreen Landry, Matthew's mother, says that was absolutely the right call. 

“[It’s one thing] to take a piece of bread because you’re hungry, without asking. That’s different than taking someone’s life," she says. "They just wanted to be part of these gangs, and that’s what they want to do, to prove themselves in these gangs. It’s incredibly senseless. I guarantee you, you let these two guys out, someone else will lose their life. I have no doubt.” 

Interestingly, the judge in this case did say that Maslamani might get better if he got intensive therapy. But, she said, you don’t get intensive therapy in prison. 

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s decision means that lots of other cases where a teenager was locked up for life (the so-called juvenile lifer cases) will get another chance in court. 

Many of these juvenile lifers have been in prison for decades. And that gives judges a much longer history to look at, when deciding which former teen criminals should get a shot at parole, and which ones are the “rare exceptions… beyond reform.”

*This story was last updated at 2:04 p.m. to include additional comments from Doreen Landry, who responded to requests for comment after the piece aired.