Federal, State Courts may Clash on 350 Juvenile Lifers

A Michigan state court case says some 350 people given mandatory no-parole sentences for murders committed as juveniles must serve their full sentences. But in the coming days, a federal court is expected to opine on a similar question.

A federal court in Michigan will soon rule on the constitutionality of automatic, no-appeal life sentences given to 13 people over the last few decades. The offenders in Hill et. al. v. Granholm all committed murder aged between 14 and 17.

“The court will decide in light of the admitted unconstitutionality of [Michigan] statute, which doesn’t give parole to juveniles convicted of first degree murder, what is the mechanism that will provide meaningful opportunity for release,” said Deborah LaBelle, an independent attorney on the team arguing for Henry Hill and the others in front of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

The case started in 2010 with nine original plaintiffs who argued that holding them for life with no meaningful opportunity for release was unconstitutional.

Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed with a similar argument in a separate Alabama case. In Miller v. Alabama, the justices found that juveniles are less mature, and therefore less culpable than adults when it comes to the crime of murder. They said lower courts must consider the mitigating factor of age and immaturity when sentencing juveniles for murder. That rules out one-size-fits-all sentences.

The Michigan state legislature has not yet had time to write a new sentencing guideline that fixes their statute, though some proposals may yet come up for a vote this year.

But as the Hill plantiffs wait for their federal ruling, a state court has said new sentencing rules will not apply to those already serving time.

Raymond Carp, 21, must serve life in prison without the chance of parole for stabbing a woman to death in 2006, the state of Michigan Court of Appeals ruled last week. Carp asked for a new sentencing hearing in light of Miller v. Alabama. The panel of judges said no.

“We hold that in Michigan a sentencing court must consider, at the time of sentencing, characteristics associated with youth as identified in Miller when determining whether to sentence a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense to life in prison with or without the eligibility for parole,” the judges wrote.

But the new U.S. Supreme Court guarantee of such a hearing is a “procedural” change, not a “substantive” change, they continue. Thus by precedent and Michigan law, it only applies going forward, not to offenders like Carp who have already exhausted direct appeals.

Yet Carp’s case will be appealed to the state Supreme Court, LaBelle predicted.

State Attorney General Bill Schuette has fought resentencing for juvenile lifers, both by public statement and in court filings. "Fortunately, the Court of Appeals agreed to follow long-standing precedent that says U.S. Supreme Court rulings addressing criminal justice processes are not retroactive,” he said in a written statement. “I pray that the families of those murdered can find some comfort in the knowledge that their days in court are over.”

Michigan holds more of the estimated 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide than any other state.