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Michigan case asks if juveniles with life sentences should also have possibility of parole

When the U.S. Supreme Court held in 2010 that it was “cruel and unusual punishment” for a juvenile convicted on a non-homicide offense to receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, a large legal question remained unanswered. A Michigan case, allowed to move forward with a single defendant, seems poised to force an answer.

U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O’Meara issued an opinion and order this week in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of several plaintiffs. Although O’Meara’s order allows only one of the plaintiffs, Keith Lenard Maxey, to proceed, it cracks open the door on what many legal scholars agree was wholly ignored in SCOTUS’s earlier ruling regarding the sentencing of juvenile offenders to life sentences and no hope of parole.

As O’Meara writes in reference to state prosecutors who were arguing for a full dismissal of the suit:

Defendants argue that sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders do not violate the Eighth Amendment as a matter of law, pursuant to Roper v. Stimmons , 543 U.S. 551 (2005) and Graham v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 211 (2010). In Roper, the Supreme Court held that the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment. By implication, Defendants suggest, the Court found a sentence of life without parole to be constitutional. The Court did not in any way consider that question, however. Roper does not support Defendants’ argument.

In Graham, the Court held that a sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders who did not commit homicide violated the Eighth Amendment. Again, Defendants suggest that the Court “effectively reaffirmed” the constitutionality of life without parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders. The Graham court did not expressly consider that issue, however, and much of its reasoning could be read to call into question the constitutionality of such sentences.

… In Graham, the Court engaged in a lengthy analysis of several factors, including evidence of “national consensus” on the issue of life without parole for non-homicide juvenile offenders, the “culpability of the offenders at issue in light of their crimes and characteristics, along with the severity of the punishment in question,” and “whether the challenged sentencing practice serves legitimate penological goals.” The full Eighth Amendment analysis required by Graham involves the presentation of evidence that is not yet before the court on this … motion.

According to Michigan court records, Maxey, now age 20, committed acts when he was 16 that led to the state charging, convicting and sentencing him as an adult. Specifically, Maxey was a party in a marijuana drug deal that went bad. Although several versions of events have been given by the several young men involved, the Michigan Court of Appeals acknowledged in a May 2010 concurring opinion that Maxey “did not shoot any of the victims and did not possess a weapon himself.” In fact, Maxey, who claimed he was restraining another young man at the scene as a matter of self-defense, was was shot by the man he sought to restrain during the tussle. It was after Maxey fled the scene — an abandoned house — that there was additional gunfire and two others were wounded, one of them fatally.

Maxey’s murder conviction was a result of a 2006 Michigan Supreme Court Case, People v. Robinson, which provides for a murder conviction on an aiding and abetting theory, even absent the intent to kill on the part of the defendant, so long as the killing was a “natural and probable” result of the underlying felony in which the defendant played a part.

Maxey is currently an inmate at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer County, Mich., where he is assigned to the lowest custody level possible for an individual serving such a sentence. He was sentenced in 2007.

According to data from the Michigan Department of Corrections, in 2009 the state housed 485 inmates serving life sentences in connection with crimes committed at age 17 or younger. Of those, 346 had no possibility of parole. Michigan law mandates that individuals age 14 and up who are charged with certain felonies be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced without judicial discretion to life without parole.

Deborah Labelle, attorney with the ACLU of Michigan’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, said, “[The] ruling allows us to prove what many already know — sentencing children to die in prison without giving them an opportunity for parole is inhumane, unfair and unconstitutional. By ignoring a child’s potential for rehabilitation and denying judges and juries any discretion, the state doles out unforgiving sentences that violate basic fairness and human rights principles. The decision is the first step toward correcting this fundamental injustice.”

State prosecutors have signaled that they will continue to argue on behalf of the state’s current sentencing structure.

Far-Reaching Ramifications

Because the ACLU has blunted noted — the statement is included in O’Meara’s opinion footnotes — that it is seeking to extend the holding of Graham to juveniles convicted of homicide, the end result of the Michigan case will reach far further than the state’s borders.

The Iowa Independent has previously reported on the case of Jason Means, a Davenport man convicted while a juvenile of first degree kidnapping, second degree murder and a smattering of other offenses related to a single incident that cost the life of a young woman. Because of questions brought by Means, the court ruled that Graham applied as a new case of substantive law — meaning that those juveniles serving such sentences should have their cases revisited and should have an opportunity to appear before a parole board. (Something that has yet to happen for Means despite a court ordering it.)

Like Maxey, Means was not the individual who perpetrated the direct act that resulted in the death of another. But he was present and participating in events that led to that act. At least one Iowa House Republican, Rep. Jeremy Taylor, has argued that because Means’ conviction includes a murder charge, Graham should not be applied to his case.

“I and others believe that the Graham decision is being misapplied to juvenile cases where there is a murder attached,” Taylor told The Iowa Independent in April, during a contentious legislative battle over how the state should reform its sentencing structure to conform to Graham’s mandates. “We want to specifically write our law so that when any new cases arrive that include a homicide, those cases will not come under the jurisdiction of Graham and those convicted of the crimes will never have an opportunity for parole.”

Iowa lawmakers ultimately left an extended General Assembly session without addressing Graham, but are expected to revisit juvenile sentencing structures when they reconvene next January.

“If there is a homicide conviction involved, even if that conviction is not the one that led to the life without parole sentence, I believe it should prevent the application of Graham in those cases,” Taylor said previously, noting that he believes Means should stay behind bars for the remainder of his life.

Although changes made by the Legislature could not be retroactively applied to Means and the handful of other similar cases already before the court, lawmakers could prohibit any future similar cases from having Graham applied. It remains unclear, however, if such legislation would withstand the court’s scrutiny.

Other Challenges

In addition to the Maxey case in Michigan, an Iowa conviction of a then 14-year-old girl for first degree murder is also winding its way through the courts.

Ruthann Veal, who is currently serving life in prison without parole in connection with the 1993 stabbing death of 66-year-old Waterloo resident Catherine Haynes, was sentenced in 1995 and has been an inmate in Iowa since that time. In 2008, following the Roper decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Veal filed an application for post-conviction relief, stating that her sentence amounted to a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Although lower courts sought to dismiss the application on a basis of statutory limitations, the Iowa Supreme Court held that the matter was one of illegal sentencing, which is not subject to such time constraints.

Represented by attorneys with the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, Veal is expected to continue her case before Iowa courts in May 2012. Although the case was originally scheduled for this spring, her legal team requested the delay in order to learn the outcome of a more recent case involving a 15-year-old Iowa boy.

Edgar Concepcion Jr. was sentenced in November 2010 in Floyd County District Court to life in prison without parole on two counts — first degree murder and first degree sexual abuse. The sentencing followed charges that he had abused and murdered his 3-year-old cousin Krystel Banes. Concepcion also received 25 years on a charge of second degree sexual abuse and up to five years for child endangerment.

Concepcion’s case is making its way through an appeals process and his legal team from the public defender office are also arguing his sentence is cruel and unusual punishment based on the Eighth Amendment.

(Reporter Eartha Jane Melzer of our sister site The Michigan Messenger contributed to this report.)

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