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Michigan's Juvenile Lifers Series

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 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.

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:

"If the prosecutors were picking one person and saying, this is the rare one, that would be very different. But they're picking 250 people and saying, they're all rare, without exercising the discretion," Labelle said.
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
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.

Michigan still has one of the highest rates of juvenile lifers in the country.
Thomas Hawk / Flickr - 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, the so-called “juvenile lifers,” should get the chance to have their sentences reconsidered.

The Court, in Miller v. Alabama in 2012 and in Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016, said that the sentence of life without parole should be reserved only for the “rarest” of cases in which the juvenile is found to be “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.”

Some 360 Michigan inmates fall into this category. But so far, Michigan prosecutors have filed motions to uphold life without parole sentences in nearly 60 percent of these cases.

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

Sixty percent certainly seems to be more than the “rarest” standard set forth by the Supreme Court, critics argue.

Deborah LaBelle is Ann Arbor attorney leading the ACLU of Michigan's Juvenile Life Without Parole initiative. She says Michigan prosecutors are ignoring the Supreme Court.

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.