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juvenile lifers

MORGAN SPRINGER / Interlochen Public Radio


(Editor’s note: we recommend you listen to the story.)

In March 2001, Fred Williams left his friend Tanya Davis’ house to get groceries. He was 17 and living on the west side of Detroit. Fred says he weighed two options before he left.

“I had Hometown Groceries on Joy Road and Wyoming,” Fred recalls, “or I had Foodarama on Livernois and Julian.”

Antonio Espree
Mercedes Mejia

Some 11,500 new students just began classes this fall at Arizona State University.

For one of those students, it's something he once never dreamed would happen.

That's because Antonio Espree is one of Michigan's 363 juvenile lifers. Thirty years ago, when he was 16, Espree was arrested for killing a man. When he was 17, he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

But thanks to a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that declared mandatory life-without-parole sentences for teens under 18 unconstitutional, Antonio Espree was released this past spring, and he is now a student at Arizona State.

BURGOS/JIMENEZ FAMILY

(Editor’s note: we recommend you listen to this story.) 

Jose Burgos was 16 years old when he shot and killed Omar Kaji. It happened during a bogus drug deal in 1991 in southwest Detroit. 

“The whole plan was, we’re going to make it look like – from the outside looking in – there’s 10 pounds of marijuana in this bag,” says Jose.

Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio

91 of Michigan’s 363 juvenile lifers have been re-sentenced, one year after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered states to do so.

collection of photos
STEVE CARMODY, JODI WESTRICK, AND THOMAS HAWK. / MICHIGAN RADIO AND FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

When it comes to re-sentencing inmates who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles, Michigan is lagging behind just about every other state.

Back in December, we brought you a series of stories about the juvenile lifers in Michigan prisons.

We dug into how Michigan prosecutors have responded to a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that made it very clear that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional.

Michigan still has one of the highest rates of juvenile lifers in the country.
Thomas Hawk / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Several Michigan prosecutors want to keep most or all their juvenile-lifer inmates behind bars despite Supreme Court rulings that say the punishment should be banned except for those rare offenders who are beyond rehabilitation.

Richard Wershe Jr. ("White Boy Rick") received a life sentence because he was caught as a 16-year-old with eight kilos of cocaine in Detroit in the 1980s.
Michigan Department of Corrections

After almost 30 years in prison, Rick Wershe, better known as White Boy Rick, has been paroled. Wershe claims he is is the nation's longest-serving non-violent juvenile drug offender. He was serving a life sentence because he was caught as a 16-year-old with eight kilos of cocaine in Detroit in the 1980s.

Kevin Dietz, a reporter with WDIV Local 4 who talked to Wershe after the decision was announced, joined Stateside to talk about the case and what's next for Wershe.

Michigan Department of Corrections

A man in Michigan who was sentenced to life in prison without parole nearly 50 years ago as a teenager may soon be released.

The Herald-Palladium reports that at 17 years old, Bobby Gene Griffin was handed Michigan's then-automatic life without parole sentence for the 1967 murder of Minnie Peaples. The law has since changed, saying juveniles convicted of murder won't receive mandatory life sentences.

Judge's gavel
(loveamourlove.com)

The Michigan appeals court has ordered a new sentence for a Kalamazoo teenager convicted of murder and suggested that he shouldn't be locked up for the rest of his life.

The court upheld the conviction of 16-year-old Victor Garay, saying the evidence in a 2014 gang-related shooting was "overwhelming." But the court said Tuesday that Judge Alexander Lipsey didn't handle the sentencing correctly.

Richard Wershe Jr. ("White Boy Rick") received a life sentence because he was caught as a 16-year-old with eight kilos of cocaine in Detroit in the 1980s. The documentary about him entitled "White Boy" is premiering at the Freep Film Festival.
Screen grab from Transition Studios

Richard Wershe Jr., otherwise known as "White Boy Rick", has been in prison for nearly 30 years. He's serving a life sentence because he was caught as a 16-year-old with eight kilos of cocaine in Detroit in the 1980s.

A new documentary exploring how the FBI got him involved in the drug game and the people who are working to keep him in prison, made its world premiere in Detroit as part of the Freep Film Festival Friday night.

The title of the film is "White Boy” and its director, Shawn Rech, joined Stateside to talk about how this project came to be.

Michigan Radio has been selected as a winner of a 2017 Wade H. McCree Award for the Advancement of Justice by the Michigan Press Association Foundation.  The station was recognized for the series, “Michigan’s Juvenile Lifers: Who gets a second chance?” The series, which aired in December, 2016, took a close look at how Michigan is following up on a landmark U.S.

Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio

It happened in a Detroit alley in 1967.

Detroiter John Hall and an accomplice beat a man who later died of his injuries.

John Hall was convicted of first-degree murder and received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. He was 17 years old. His accomplice was never arrested.

But Hall's future changed with two landmark rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court – rulings that outlawed mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles.

On Feb. 2, at age 67, John Hall walked out of a Michigan prison.

Flickr user Still Burning / Flickr Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The state Senate has adopted a criminal justice overhaul that aims to improve public safety by sending fewer people to prison. The 21 bills passed with almost unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats.

While crime and the number of prisoners is on its way down, state Senator John Proos (R-St. Joseph) says the state can do better. He says the key is making sure inmates succeed once they are released.

Judge's gavel
Flickr user Joe Gratz / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

The Michigan Supreme Court says it will settle whether juries - instead of judges - have the sole power to decide whether someone under 18 gets life in prison without parole.

If the Court decides to give the sentencing power to juries, the juries would have to make a specific determination that the convicted had no hope of being rehabilitated and deserved a no-parole sentence.

JoshuaDavisPhotography / Flickr Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Prosecutors for Macomb, Saginaw, Genesee, and Oakland counties in Michigan are not complying with two U.S. Supreme Court decisions about juvenile lifers, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in state court.

The complaint says the four prosecutors are seeking life without parole in the re-sentencing of almost every one of the more than 100  juvenile lifer cases in their counties. And the complaint says this is in direct disregard of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

A roundup of our juvenile lifers in Michigan series

Dec 20, 2016
Photos from our series on juvenile lifers in Michigan.
Steve Carmody, Jodi Westrick, and Thomas Hawk. / Michigan Radio and Flickr - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

In the 1990s, Michigan took a tough stand against teens under 18 convicted of violent crimes. Prosecutors in Michigan started locking more of them up for life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles. The justices found that it violated the Eighth Amendments' prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment."

Infographic.
Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio

With one landmark ruling in 2012, the United States Supreme Court made it clear: mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for teenagers under 18 are unconstitutional. They said the sentence is considered "cruel and unusual punishment" under the 8th Amendment.

The justices cited research on brain development to determine their ruling.

From the majority opinion in Miller v. Alabama:

Prison bars
flickr user Thomas Hawk / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court handed down a directive saying that all prisoners sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as minors, so-called “juvenile lifers,” should get the chance to have their sentences reconsidered.

steve carmody / Michigan Radio

Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to sentence people younger than 18 to mandatory life without parole. And just about one year ago, the court made that decision retroactive.

In Michigan, prosecutors have been testing the limits of that decision. They’re asking courts to uphold life-without-parole for most of the 363 inmates affected.

(Left to right) William Washington, Lizzie Young and Vincent Washington.
Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio

Wayne County has more than 150 juvenile lifers, by far the most in the state. As of today, only one of them – and, in fact, the only person among the more than 360 juvenile lifers in the entire state of Michigan – has been given that second chance. 

On June 4, 1975, 17-year-old William Washington and his 26-year-old co-defendant, Kenneth Rucker, robbed a record store. After a scuffle with the store owner, Mr. Rucker took the victim into the back room and shot him to death. This incident led to Washington receiving a life without parole sentence for first degree murder, as well as a second life sentence for armed robbery, for his role as an aider and abettor.

On November 17th of this year – 41 years after he went to prison – William Washington became a free man.  

Washington and his mother Lizzie Young joined us in the studio.

Renard Johnson appears in court for resentencing via videoconference.
Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

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.

Judge's gavel
Flickr user Joe Gratz / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

 

The 2012 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama held that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional.

The court’s 2016 decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana said the Miller decision was retroactive, meaning that everyone sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile is entitled to have their sentences reconsidered.

Outside the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments in the juvenile lifer cases in March 2012.
courtesy of Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins / http://www.teenkillers.org/

In his office in downtown Grand Rapids, Kent County prosecutor Bill Forsyth has stacks of boxes up against a long wall. They’re labeled and stuffed with transcripts, police reports, autopsy reports. 

“That’s about half of what I had when we started,” he said, motioning toward them. 

About a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said states had to review the cases of juvenile lifers who were sentenced before automatic life was declared unconstitutional. The court said automatically sentencing juveniles to life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment. 

Courtesy of the Office of the Genesee County Prosecuting Attorney

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.  

Courtesy Clari Cabral / Creative Commons -- http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

All this week, we’re looking at juvenile lifers in Michigan -- those inmates sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were minors.

Michigan ranks second in the number of prisoners who fit this classification. There are more than 360 juvenile lifers in Michigan, and a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases has meant that Michigan has to take a second look at the sentences these inmates were given.

documents
Isaac Bowen / Flickr, http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Michigan has 363 prisoners who have been sentenced to mandatory life without parole, the second most in the nation. Early in 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that all of these prisoners must have their sentences reconsidered.

Currently, only a fraction of these cases have been reevaluated and resentenced.

The process of resentencing these juvenile offenders requires much more than a simple file review and hearing. Many documents have to be organized and processed in order for attorneys and judges to properly evaluate each case.

Shayan Sanyal / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

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.

Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio

As this infographic shows, only Pennsylvania ranks higher than Michigan when it comes to handing out life sentences without the possibility for parole to juveniles.

The U.S. Supreme Court says states have to review these sentences for all those who were convicted and sentenced as juveniles, and that "life without the possibility of parole" should only be reserved for "the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility."

Click on the graphic to see more.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

There are 363 Michigan inmates in state prisons closely watching how the state of Michigan and local prosecutors implement two U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The decisions struck down mandatory life sentences for juveniles. The lifers were convicted of murder and sentenced in the late 1980s and 1990s under a get-tough approach to juvenile crime.

The laws were a response to a wave of violent crime that swept the state and the country.

There are more than 350 prisoners in Michigan who have been sentenced to life in prison, without parole, for crimes they committed as juveniles. A 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that states must retroactively review all these cases, saying that life sentences for juveniles should only be reserved for "the rarest of juvenile offenders.” Prosecutors in Michigan have been slow to comply.

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