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In Wayne County juvenile lifer cases, questions about who gets a second chance, and why?

Dec 15, 2016

Wayne County has more than 150 juveniles serving mandatory life-without-parole prison sentences.

That’s by far the most in the state. And because of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, they all need to be re-sentenced.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy wants 67 of those people to stay behind bars for life. But a lot of people are wondering how she decided who deserves a second chance, and who doesn’t.

“He’s been gone so long”

Renard Johnson has been behind bars since he was 17 years old.

Now, he’s back in a Detroit courtroom as a bald, 50-year-old man — this time via video conference, from the prison where he’s spent most of the past 34 years.

Michigan ranks 2nd in the country in the number of "juvenile lifers" in prison. Most are in these five counties.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio

Because he was sentenced to mandatory life without parole as a minor, Johnson is one of Michigan’s 363 “juvenile lifers.”

Because of two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, they’re all entitled to new sentences. The court ruled that life without parole for juvenile offenders amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment,” except in a few very extreme cases.

Johnson’s lawyer, Valerie Newman, argues that Johnson has been in prison too long already.

“This was a home invasion, back in those days known as breaking-and-entering,” Newman tells Wayne County Judge Shannon Holmes.

Newman goes on to make Johnson’s case for possible release to the judge. He was convicted of first-degree murder after participating in an armed robbery, with older co-defendants.

Johnson didn’t pull the trigger — in fact, he was outside when the fatal shooting happened. One of his co-defendants was convicted for second-degree murder; another was never prosecuted at all.

Newman briefly notes that Johnson had a “very difficult, violent” childhood, and got involved with some people who “led him down a bad path.”

But she says he’s grown up — and changed.

By state statute, the judge must sentence Johnson at least 25 years in prison. The maximum term would be 60 years.

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

In the end, Holmes gives him a 30-year sentence. Because Johnson has already served more than that, he’s immediately eligible for parole.

In a chaotic hallway outside the courtroom, Newman tells more than a dozen of Johnson’s family and friends this is the best outcome they could have hoped for.

“So when I get back to my office, I’ll call the parole board, and we’ll get him in front of the parole board as quickly as [we can,]” Newman said. “He could be home in a couple months.”

Joyce Johnson (center), Renard's mother, with family and friends after his resentencing. Renard Johnson was sentenced to 30 years, making him immediately eligible for parole.
Credit Sarah Cwiek

“Oh, thank you,” said Joyce Johnson, Renard’s mother. She’s weeping.

“I am so happy because he’s been gone so long. And I just feel sick a lot, so I’m just glad he’s coming home right now.”

Sentence recommendations raise questions: “I don’t understand how they could reach that conclusion”

Back at her office, on the 33rd floor of Detroit’s Penobscot Building, Valerie Newman has a list of all her juvenile lifer cases taped to the wall.

“I just have a chart which lists the client name, how long they’ve served, the judge that’s been assigned to the case, the prosecutor that’s been assigned to the case,” she said.

They’re divided into two columns — green on one side, orange on the other: “One being cases where the prosecutor is not seeking life, and the other where the prosecutor is seeking life.”

Newman is an attorney with the State Appellate Defenders’ Office, which is handling most of the juvenile lifer cases in Michigan.

Michigan prosecutors are seeking new life-without-parole sentences in a large of majority of those cases.

Percentage-wise, Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy is not in that same territory. But because of the county’s sheer number of juvenile lifers, her office has asked to reinstate life-without-parole in a total of 67 cases.

Newman is one person who thinks that’s far too many. She says the U.S. Supreme Court set a clear standard for juvenile lifers who can remain behind bars for life.

“The rare and irreparably corrupt youth. And so when I think of 'rare,' I think of when I buy a lottery ticket, gee, it would be pretty rare if I win,” Newman said.

That’s not the only thing Newman takes issue with in Wayne County. It’s the apparently random way the prosecutor’s office decided who would get a chance at parole, and who wouldn’t.

“I know they had a process. That’s what we’ve been told, they had a very thorough vetting process. But what specifics went into it have never been revealed,” Newman said.

Erin Van Campen is another attorney in the State Appellate Defender’s Office. She’s handling 25 Wayne County juvenile lifer cases.

The prosecutor has recommended new life sentences for 15 of her clients, and Van Campen says some of those recommendations leave her scratching her head.

Like the case of Ervin Jennings, now 42 years old.

"I know they had a vetting process...But what specifics went into it have never been revealed." — SADO lawyer Valerie Newman, on Wayne County's juvenile lifer resentencing recommendations.

“It was an armed robbery gone wrong over some clothing,” Van Campen said. “And it’s exactly the kind of stupid decision-making we see in teenagers that our Supreme Court has said makes their conduct not excused, not ok, but perhaps less blameworthy than a fully grown, mature adult who commits the same act.”

Van Campen says Jennings has since become a “trusted employee” of the Michigan Department of Corrections, helping to supervise other prisoners.

He has a good institutional record, has earned certificates in vocational training courses, and he’s considered a low risk for re-offending.

Yet Wayne County prosecutors want Jennings re-sentenced to life without parole.

“The motion Wayne County filed was nearly identical in all the cases where they did file it,” Van Campen said. "And it includes this sort of boilerplate assertion that this juvenile is irreparably corrupt.

“I look at what he’s accomplished over the last 24 years, and I don’t see how they could reach that conclusion.”

Michigan’s “complicated and difficult process” burdens Wayne County

Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy declined to be interviewed for this story.

In an email, Worthy spokeswoman Maria Miller said it would be “ethically inappropriate for her to discuss the recommendations outside of court.”

It’s important to note that the way Michigan’s state legislature chose to tackle juvenile lifer re-sentencing is particularly burdensome.

They set up a scheme where prosecutors had to review all their county’s juvenile lifer cases and decide on new sentencing recommendations, and they set a summer deadline that left them with just a few weeks to do that.

This all added up to a heavy burden on prosecutors — and is becoming a burden on the courts. That’s especially true in Wayne County.

“We have a pretty complicated and difficult process which will probably turn out to be expensive and time consuming,” said Robert Colombo, Chief Judge of the Wayne County Circuit Court.

Colombo says that’s not just true for the courts, which may now be bogged down with juvenile lifer resentencings for years.

It’s also true for Worthy’s office, which had to review and issue sentencing recommendations on more than 150 cases on that very tight deadline.

Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Robert Colombo, with the court's juvenile lifer files.
Credit Sarah Cwiek

“Having to gather the educational records, juvenile records, the records with respect to the case itself, the crime, for some 147-plus cases … is a very time-consuming process,” Colombo said.

There’s at least one person who understands what that kind of burden might feel like: John O’Hair, the Wayne County prosecutor from 1983-2000.

Most Wayne County juvenile lifers were convicted and went to prison on O’Hair’s watch. But he can’t remember any of those cases, specifically.

“We were processing maybe 30,000 felony cases a year,” O’Hair said. “Of course homicides are cases that stand out, but we had a lot of homicides too.”

O’Hair says he understands the time crunch Worthy’s office had to work under. But he’s also come out as a fierce critic of how Michigan and its prosecutors are handling juvenile lifer cases.

O’Hair thinks the state statute that sets the terms of juvenile will “ultimately be found to be unconstitutional.”

He argues that the limits it sets — with its minimum 25-40 year sentences, and a 60-year maximum — effectively amounts to life without parole in most cases. And he thinks the number of cases that prosecutors are recommending for renewed life sentences is appalling.

“That’s, in my judgment, a disregard of what the Supreme Court has ordered,” O’Hair said.

O’Hair warns those charged with enforcing the law can’t put themselves above the high court’s mandates, regardless of their personal feelings.

But there are signs Worthy and other Michigan prosecutors may be willing to take a second look at some of the juvenile lifer cases they had to make quick decisions on.

Worthy’s spokeswoman Maria Miller says her office is still “seeking information” about all juvenile lifer cases,” and is “open to review any information that is provided.”