Judge opens door for Michigan juvenile lifers

Updated at: 01/30/2013 4:07 PM
By ED WHITE

(AP) DETROIT - All Michigan inmates serving no-parole sentences for murder committed as juveniles are entitled to a chance at release, a judge said Wednesday, declaring that a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision applies retroactively.

The decision by U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara trumps a ruling last fall by the state appeals court, which said most people already behind bars wouldn’t benefit.

At issue in Michigan is how to follow a 2012 Supreme Court decision that struck down mandatory no-parole sentences for those who were under 18 when they committed crimes, mostly murder. The court said it’s cruel and unusual punishment. The state has more than 350 prisoners in that category.

Compliance with the Supreme Court decision "requires providing a fair and meaningful possibility of parole to each and every Michigan prisoner who was sentenced to life for a crime committed as a juvenile," O’Meara said.

More than 2,000 inmates in the U.S. are serving mandatory no-parole sentences because of crimes committed as teens. Seven months after the high court’s ruling, parole remains an issue in many states. A decision is pending from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the Missouri Supreme Court is hearing arguments in February. Illinois appellate courts have ruled in favor of prisoners, while Florida appellate courts said no.

"The battle still is being waged in various states. It’s not a slam dunk," said Lawrence Wojcik, a Chicago lawyer who co-chairs the juvenile justice committee of the American Bar Association.

In Michigan, the judge told the state attorney general and inmates’ lawyers to propose a way to hold parole hearings. Those next steps will be litigated for months.

"If ever there was a legal rule that should _ as a matter of law and morality _ be given retroactive effect, it is the rule announced in Miller," O’Meara said in his six-page ruling, referring to the Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama. "To hold otherwise would allow the state to impose unconstitutional punishment on some persons but not others, an intolerable miscarriage of justice."

Deborah LaBelle, a lawyer who sued on behalf of inmates, said it’s a "fantastic" decision.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, who opposed any benefit for current prisoners, is considering an appeal.

"He will continue to fight for crime victims and their families, who should not be forced to relive these horrific crimes at parole hearings," Schuette spokeswoman Joy Yearout said.

LaBelle and the American Civil Liberties Union sued in 2010 to strike down a Michigan law that bars people from seeking parole for first-degree murder committed as a juvenile. While the case was pending, the Supreme Court in June said mandatory no-parole punishments for teens violated the U.S. Constitution, giving O’Meara more legal precedent.

The oldest Michigan inmate serving a no-parole sentence for committing murder as a teen is Sheldry Topp, 68, who’s been in prison since 1962.

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