Sentenced to Life Without Parole As a Juvenile: Donald Scott | Age 61

"They can keep my body locked up, but my soul and mind are always on the other side."

For more than a decade I have interviewed more than 1,000 kids in 35 states. What of these kids who were sentenced to long sentences and JLWOP, life sentences without parole? These kids become adults who become geriatric. These are the people I have interviewed for the past year.

These are their stories. There are more than 2,000 people — juveniles serving life without parole all over the country. These are some of their voices. These are their faces.

This is a series by Richard Ross that runs every other Thursday until Dec. 14.

Sentenced to Life Without Parole As a Juvenile: Chantay Clark | Age 39

"My mother was a violent alcoholic. she used me as a punching bag so I ran away."

For more than a decade I have interviewed more than 1,000 kids in 35 states. What of these kids who were sentenced to long sentences and JLWOP, life sentences without parole? These kids become adults who become geriatric. These are the people I have interviewed for the past year.

These are their stories. There are more than 2,000 people — juveniles serving life without parole all over the country. These are some of their voices. These are their faces.

This is a series by Richard Ross that will run every other Thursday.

Arizona, Other States Need Resentencing Guidelines for JLWOP Youth

The current law of the land prohibits the use of mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juvenile offenders due to Miller v. Alabama. That case’s standards also apply to offenders previously given natural life sentences for homicide offenses because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana. It is unclear, however, how these important changes in law will translate into actual practices.

Some of the practical challenges associated with these changes in law pertain to the interpretation of specific standards governing juvenile sentencing and release decision-making processes, e.g., transient immaturity, irreparable corruption and meaningful opportunities for release.

These standards address important principles identified by the Supreme Court in support of its reasoning as to why sentencing juveniles to life requires different considerations from adults: a) juveniles have diminished culpability because of their developmental and neurological immaturity; b) juveniles have more of a capacity for change than adults. Yet minimal attention has been devoted in Arizona toward providing decision-making authorities with guidelines for implementing these special juvenile considerations.

Twenty-nine states had life sentences for juveniles without the opportunity for parole when the Miller case was decided. Arizona was one of those states, so the 34 juveniles given LWOP sentences before the Miller decision need to be resentenced.

Arizona did not commute its juvenile natural life sentences to indeterminate-life terms of imprisonment as did 17 other jurisdictions. As a consequence, the courts in Arizona must implement the individualized sentencing process prescribed in Miller when the 34 become eligible for resentencing.

In the Miller decision, the court was not banning life sentence for juvenile offenders, but equated a life sentence with a death sentence, which means life sentences for juveniles now require the kinds of individualized determinations that are required for death sentences. However, a number of legal scholars have questioned whether Arizona and other states will implement the intent and spirit of the standards governing these individualized sentencing processes.

The legal officials who will participate in these resentencing and future sentencing procedures for juveniles convicted of homicide offenses are expected to take into account whether the offense reflected the offender’s transient immaturity or the juvenile’s irreparable corruption. While many expert witnesses and other consulting professionals are aware of the contributions of immaturity to various forms of behavior, there is a lack of credible evidence in the scientific literature on how to make valid recommendations about whether or not a juvenile is irreparably depraved or unlikely to change. As a consequence, lawyers in Arizona and other jurisdictions are struggling with how to develop effective strategies for presenting evidence to dispute claims of irreparable corruption.

The Miller decision also has implications for how parole boards and other releasing authorities insure that juveniles are afforded meaningful opportunities for release. In order to address this new legal requirement, some states have developed specialized criteria for guiding releasing authorities in the implementation of Miller requirements.

Thus far, Arizona has not followed the lead of California and other jurisdictions that modified their parole procedures and criteria for determining a juvenile lifer’s suitability for release. Arizona has 74 juveniles who were sentenced to 25 years to life. They will be eligible for release by the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency under Miller, but not all of them will have access to legal counsel to assist them in making a case of their suitability for release. The availability of legal counsel in these parole processes also will vary from state to state.

In Arizona, the Arizona Justice Project is a nonprofit group of lawyers and volunteers who are developing strategies in conjunction with the Sandra Day O’Connor Post-Conviction Law Clinic and faculty and students from the Office of Offender Diversion and Sentencing Solutions (OODSS) in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University to assist inmates seeking release pursuant to Miller requirements. The Arizona Justice Project “reviews and assists in cases of actual innocence or cases in which a manifest injustice has occurred.”

The pilot project with the OODSS was developed to assist lawyers working with the wrongly convicted in helping them address their reentry concerns. The student social workers in this pilot program not only provide supportive services to inmates experiencing reentry difficulties, but also assist inmates at their release hearings by presenting responsive release plans that address relevant risks and needs. This strategy, employed by the Arizona Justice Project for collaborating with faculty and students from the School of Social Work, is an interim solution to a pressing problem.

In 2018, the number of inmates in Arizona who will become eligible for consideration for release will begin to exceed the capacity of the pilot project. This project and other legal assistance programs serving these offenders will have to make difficult decisions in selecting cases for their assistance. This is unfortunate because the release planning provided by the reentry team has helped assuage a number of concerns from the defense community about releasing inmates who were disconnected from family and other relevant supports needed for a successful reintegration in society. Clearly, advocates in Arizona and other jurisdictions need to push for funding of this and other kinds of initiatives to work on the translation of Miller principles into meaningful opportunities for release of juvenile lifers.

The pilot project has already produced positive outcomes in addressing reentry and release planning issues. In addition, it is demonstrating the importance of promoting similar forms of interprofessional training with a focus on principles of holistic defense in sentencing juveniles from indigent backgrounds to a LWOP sentence. Indeed, similar interprofessional training programs are needed for preparing social workers and lawyers in the sentencing of juveniles in states that have maintained LWOP sentences for irreparably corrupt youth.

Thus far, the federal government and most states have not identified special funding for the purposes of training releasing authorities, lawyers, judges and other professionals in how to develop effective strategies for responding to Miller requirements. An equally important concern is in the future sentencing of juveniles convicted of homicide offenses. For these youth, they deserve to have their judges have clear guidelines for interpreting Miller standards. These youth also should have public defenders and mitigation specialists who have access to the kinds of training and supports currently available to mitigation professionals in capital cases.

The U.S. Supreme Court is requiring that given the seriousness of LWOP sentences that practitioners must connect the seriousness of a youth’s offense to special circumstances of youth. In order to avoid claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in these matters, the juvenile justice community must take affirmative steps to make sure that lawyers and mitigation specialists are prepared to develop and present evidence of “transient immaturity” in making a case for leniency when youth are convicted of heinous offenses.

José B. Ashford is a professor of social work and doctoral program in sociology. He is also the director of the Office of Offender Diversion and Sentencing Solutions and of the graduate certificate on criminal sentencing and sentencing advocacy. He is an affiliate faculty member in the schools of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Program on Law and Behavioral Science, and School of Justice and Social Inquiry.

Sentenced to Life Without Parole As a Juvenile: April Henderson | Age 37

"An inmate is careless and doesn't understand the time. I've been in 23 years."

For more than a decade I have interviewed more than 1,000 kids in 35 states. What of these kids who were sentenced to long sentences and JLWOP, life sentences without parole? These kids become adults who become geriatric. These are the people I have interviewed for the past year.

These are their stories. There are more than 2,000 people — juveniles serving life without parole all over the country. These are some of their voices. These are their faces.

This is a series by Richard Ross that will run every other Thursday.

Sentenced to Life Without Parole As a Juvenile: Kimberly Williams | Age 35

"My daughter saw me in shackles and hated it. She hates me."

For more than a decade I have interviewed more than 1,000 kids in 35 states. What of these kids who were sentenced to long sentences and JLWOP, life sentences without parole? These kids become adults who become geriatric. These are the people I have interviewed for the past year.

These are their stories. There are more than 2,000 people — juveniles serving life without parole all over the country. These are some of their voices. These are their faces.

This is a series by Richard Ross that will run every other Thursday.

Sentenced to Life Without Parole As a Juvenile: Terrence Graham | Age 30

"I grew up with two crack-addicted parents. At home there was only Doritos and spoiled milk or government cheese in the refrigerator."

For more than a decade I have interviewed more than 1,000 kids in 35 states. What of these kids who were sentenced to long sentences and JLWOP, life sentences without parole? These kids become adults who become geriatric. These are the people I have interviewed for the past year.

These are their stories. There are more than 2,000 people — juveniles serving life without parole all over the country. These are some of their voices. These are their faces.

This is a series by Richard Ross that will run every other Thursday.

Some State Laws Slow Resentencings Despite Miller v. Alabama Decision

While the man behind the landmark decision that ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles waits for a new sentence, other inmates given the same term are getting a shot at eventual freedom.

Evan Miller went back before a judge in his hometown of Moulton, Alabama, for a three-day resentencing hearing March 13. Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig’s decision is still pending.

But the Supreme Court ruling that bears Miller’s name is already bearing fruit for other Alabama inmates serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were 18. For them, the process can be difficult, slow and vary county by county. And thanks to a 2016 state law, they may have a long wait for a parole hearing even if they succeed.

For example, the July 31 decision declaring juvenile lifer Richard Kinder eligible for parole came nine months after a hearing before a judge in Birmingham, attorney Richard Jaffe said.

“The judge wanted to be thorough and know every inch of it — every document, every record, and there were thousands and thousands of pages,” said Jaffe, who defended Kinder in his 1984 trial and served as co-counsel in his resentencing.

Joy Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, said about 70 other state inmates are eligible for new sentencing hearings under the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision and its 2016 follow-up, Montgomery v. Louisiana, which declared the Miller ruling retroactive.

So far, 20 of them have been resentenced to life with a chance at parole, said Eddie Cook, a spokesman for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

State Rep. Jim Hill, a former judge who pushed to bring Alabama’s capital sentencing law into line with the Miller decision, said he has urged his old colleagues to get on with the task at hand.

“I have certainly had judges call me and ask, ‘Do I need to have rehearings?’ And my answer to them is, ‘Sure. You must. Go ahead and schedule it and get it done,’” said Hill, a Republican who chairs the state House Judiciary Committee.

Alabama’s new capital sentencing law, passed in 2016, also requires that teens convicted of capital murder serve 30 years before becoming eligible for release. Since Kinder has been imprisoned more than 30 years, he now has the right to a parole hearing, Jaffe said.

But other juvenile lifers will face more years behind bars even if they succeed in getting their chance at parole. That would include Miller himself, who was convicted in 2006.

That 30-year requirement isn’t the most stringent, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. At least two states — Texas and Nebraska — require a 40-year minimum. But it’s tougher than others: West Virginia allows inmates to get a hearing after 15 years; Nevada, 20; and South Dakota leaves the issue entirely up to a judge.

And the Miller decision barred only the automatic imposition of a life-without-parole sentence for a teen killer. Judges can still hand down that term after weighing the evidence. But the justices required them to consider a teen’s "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change," and the follow-up Montgomery decision limits the punishment to teens whose crimes show “permanent incorrigibility.”

“It’s going to apply to the rarest of the rare cases,” Jaffe said.

Kinder has served nearly 33 years of a life-without-parole sentence for a killing committed when he was 17.

Kinder, then 17, was convicted of capital murder in the 1983 killing of 16-year-old Kathleen Bedsole during a robbery and kidnapping. As an accomplice, Kinder was spared the death penalty, but got life without parole. The 21-year-old gunman, David Duren, went to the electric chair in 2000, having dropped his appeals after a religious conversion.

Jaffe called Kinder’s resentencing “excruciating” and “heart-wrenching.” It featured testimony from Bedsole’s boyfriend, who survived his wounds that night. But guards and teachers at the prison where Kinder has been locked up testified that he has been a model prisoner. His disciplinary record includes only one infraction, and he earned a high school equivalency diploma, an associate’s degree from a community college and a trade school diploma in furniture refinishing.

In addition, Duren’s attorney signed an affidavit recounting that his client had said he made the decision to shoot Bledsoe and her boyfriend without telling Kinder, and that Kinder had told him there “was no need to shoot.” Jaffe said Circuit Judge Teresa Pulliam found Kinder “was not only rehabilitatable, but had been rehabilitated.”

Pulliam has scheduled several other hearings for inmates convicted in Jefferson County, the state’s largest, said Michael Hanle, president of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. But for convicts in other counties, there’s little movement, he said.

“We’re not quick to the table,” said Hanle, who is also Jaffe’s law partner. Rural counties especially “are not moving as quickly as in some other jurisdictions, and they’re having a little more difficult time.”

Many judges aren’t eager to reduce sentences, and defense lawyers are often court-appointed and lack the resources to assemble their case. But the biggest obstacle is time, he said.

“Some of these guys have been in prison 20, 25, 30, 35 years, and a lot has happened during that time,” Hanle said. Finding witnesses becomes harder, and it’s more difficult to present testimony that would point toward a lighter term.

“And of course, a defendant has a lifetime literally in the Department of Corrections, which comes with its ups and downs,” he said. “Some of them have gone on to do great things as far as their education, training and rehabilitation. Others have had problems, and all those things are going to be brought back up during the resentencing.”

Hill said the judges he knows “all want to follow the law, whether they like it or don’t like it.”

“I think it’s a necessity that we do it,” he added. “It’s one of those things that when you see what the situation is, you need to address it. It took us a couple of years to address it, but we did, and I’m very glad that we did.”

Miller is represented by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s executive director, did not respond to a request for comment.

Nationwide, about 2,500 inmates are eligible for new hearings under the Miller and Montgomery decisions. It’s not clear how many of them have had those hearings, but states well beyond Alabama have been slow to schedule them, said Josh Rovner, a juvenile justice advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project.  

“While there are certainly states that have sharp declines — sometimes because state supreme courts required it — in many cases, the states barely budged in the number of people serving life without parole for things they did as a juvenile,” Rovner said.

For example, Iowa has moved quickly to resentence inmates eligible for new hearings under Miller, and it has eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed by juveniles altogether, Rovner said. But in Arkansas, a judge recently struck down the state’s new sentencing law because it failed to provide for individualized hearings. And the three states with the most juvenile life-without-parole sentences — Michigan, Louisiana and Pennsylvania — “really dragged their feet on this,” he said.

“The facts are rarely in question,” Rovner said. “The question is what is the juvenile’s maturity, involvement in the offense, what was his family life like — these are questions that are able to be answered.” Caseloads and procedures might move at different paces in some places, but he said waiting five years since the Miller decision “is preposterous.”  

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Dying Inside: Teenage Murderer James Morgan Wasn’t Executed, But Is His Life Worth Living?

James Morgan

A version of this story also appears in Salon.

In 1987, when I first interviewed James Morgan, he was on death row in Florida, sentenced to die in the electric chair for murdering a widow in a small town north of Palm Beach. He killed her when he was 16 years old.

Local newspaper reporters struggled to find words for the crime: Heinous, grisly and senseless didn’t do it justice. Nothing could describe what Morgan did to 66-year-old Gertrude Trbovich, a widow who lived on a narrow drive where homes sat on manicured lawns, flanked by hibiscus and palm trees.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

Morgan was evil, wicked and vile, the prosecutor said at trial. Yes, he was young. But he was incapable of change and would never find a moral compass. People like him were a danger to society whether they were 40 years old, 60 or beyond. (As of 2016, Morgan’s “expected release date” is set for 2094, when he’d be 134 years old.)

“Have you watched how he doesn’t move?” Morgan’s public defender told jurors at one of his trials. Morgan had four, each one ending in the death penalty and each overturned on appeal.

“Look at him,” the public defender said, trying to make jurors see that Morgan was mentally ill. “He sits in the same position for hours and hours!”

What jurors saw was a blank-faced young man who didn’t look sorry enough. At one trial he wore a blue and yellow checked sports coat and light blue pants, the local newspaper noted. He was described as emotionless.

The jurors’ compassion evaporated, as it would for anyone, when they saw the full-color photos of Trbovich beaten and slashed to death, and a knife encrusted with her blood. In Morgan’s case, the prosecutor placed the knife on the railing of the jury box. It took jurors only about an hour of deliberating before they recommended the death penalty.

By the time I met Morgan, I’d also looked at crime scene photos. But I was trying to look at another part of the picture, as well. I was traveling to death rows around the country for a magazine article about the dozens of juvenile offenders who’d been condemned to die, a number that would eventually grow to 226. Some of the teens were as young as 15 at the time of their crime. In all, 22 would be executed.

There was a central theme in their cases: Prosecutors argued that the teens could never change.

How anyone could predict the future that way was a mystery to the American Psychological Association, the American Bar Association, human rights groups, social workers, adolescent psychiatrists, and parents, who knew that teenagers turned into a different person often enough to cause whiplash.

For years, on and off, I thought about the death row teens and wondered how they’d grown up. Morgan was among the most damaged of all of them. If he could transform himself even in a small way, it could prove prosecutors wrong, I imagined. But I knew I couldn’t gauge his progress unless I could meet him decades in the future.

This past year, I got the chance.

The murder

On June 6, 1977, Gertrude went shopping with one of her friends before returning home to Stuart, on the Treasure Coast in southeast Florida. The beloved mother, mother-in-law and grandmother lived in a pretty neighborhood on a street above the St. Lucie River.

Morgan lived on the poorer side of town. His father had a lawn maintenance business and asked his three kids to help out with the mowing when they weren’t in school. By ninth grade Morgan was free to help out every day.

Morgan had struggled in school since kindergarten, about the time an older cousin introduced him to sniffing gasoline, court documents said. The habit made Morgan hallucinate and hear things that nobody said. But Morgan didn’t mind it, aside from the fact that he got a whipping from his mom if she caught him.

In grade school one of Morgan’s uncles began to sexually abuse him; two cousins molested Morgan as well, legal documents said. Morgan’s parents argued over his father’s heavy drinking, which his mother didn’t approve of, the documents added. Sniffing gasoline, at least, helped Morgan forget things.

It also caused brain damage. Morgan dropped out of school after eighth grade. He still couldn’t read or write. By age 15 and 16, he was getting drunk more and more often. His father put him to work.

On the day in question, Morgan was mowing the lawn for Trbovich. He had a hangover from sniffing gas and getting drunk the night before.

When a cousin dropped him off at Trbovich’s house that afternoon he was barefoot and wearing a denim jacket, despite the pressing heat. That day he’d sniffed gasoline and had some beer, and now he felt even sicker. He wanted to call his father and get a ride home.

Trbovich was in the cool of her dining room when she heard the knock on the door. She opened it and saw a pale, bedraggled 16-year-old with dirty blond hair to his shoulders, tall for his age, and shoeless. Morgan asked to use the telephone, and she let him inside.

But when Morgan dialed his father, he got no answer. Morgan was starting to feel angry. He asked to use the bathroom. Trbovich gave him permission.

As he walked past her — she sat quietly at her desk, writing a letter — he began to think she’d smelled the beer on his breath. He thought he heard her mumble something about reporting it to his mother.

Trbovich was going to tell his mother he was drinking, he convinced himself. His mother hated drinking. He was going to be in big trouble.

When Morgan left the bathroom he saw Trbovich, still writing a letter. It was to his mother, he thought.

He took a crescent wrench from his pocket and bludgeoned her on the head. She looked at him, terrified. He saw “a look of disgust” — the same look he’d seen on his mother’s face when she was angry about his father’s drinking.

Enraged, Morgan beat Trbovich with the wrench and smashed her with a vase. He fractured her skull and pounded one of her hands so hard that her wedding ring flattened into an oval.

He picked up a serrated bread knife and stabbed her 67 times, court records said. He bit her on the breast, sexually assaulted her, made a brief attempt to clean up some of the blood and fled.

Police found Morgan’s bloody bare footprint on a piece of stationery that fell to the floor. Trbovich had written the time in the corner: 3:15 p.m. The letter stopped in midsentence.

Morgan deserved life imprisonment, not death, his public defender argued at the trial six months later. The boy couldn’t remember the stabbing; he was a brain-damaged 16-year-old with the emotional maturity of a grade-schooler; he was in a psychotic frenzy when he attacked the elderly woman; and he was legally insane at the time, the defense attorney said.

The prosecutor countered that Morgan was utterly sane and that the murder was premeditated. The teenager was “a pretty cool cat” and “a controlled, insensitive” killer, a psychiatrist testified. Jurors agreed.

By New Year’s Eve, 1977, Morgan was in an airplane for the first time in his life, handcuffed and shackled in a single-engine plane en route to prison in the piney woods of north Florida. He’d be on Florida State Prison’s death row for more than 16 years.

The meeting

I heard Morgan before I saw him. He wore handcuffs connected to a chain around his waist, and leg shackles that kept him at a shuffle, the chain clinking between his ankles.

Morgan was 6-foot-2 and bone-thin, with a pale, narrow face. A guard brought him to the narrow concrete and plexiglass interview room and he arranged himself across the table from me, clanking even more loudly. He said hello, almost inaudibly. He looked disoriented.

“I didn’t know the interview was today,” he said.

Morgan was 27 years old. He’d lived for a decade in a windowless 6-by-9-foot death row cell, 23 hours a day, at Florida State Prison, home of the notoriously malfunctioning electric chair Old Sparky, which in the future would set a man’s head on fire.

His cell was a stifling, three-sided concrete vault, big enough to take a few strides up and back. He couldn’t see other inmates without holding a mirror through the front bars. But he could hear them. The din was relentless: shouts, screams, mouthing off and the metal-on-metal overdub of banging steel doors, slamming gates and jangling shackles.

The sounds traveled everywhere, including to the narrow room in the main part of the prison where I’d waited for Morgan to appear. “I’m a little nervous,” he told me.

That morning he’d been strip-searched, shackled and escorted off the row. Nobody mentioned the interview. Morgan was convinced the guard was taking him to the colonel’s office, where inmates went if the governor signed their death warrant. He was going to be electrocuted, he told himself. Then a guard locked him in a holding cell for hours. The whole time, he was terrified that he was going to die soon in the electric chair.

He had a receding chin and long, delicate fingers, the only thing about him that seemed willing to move. He mumbled. His right hand gravitated to the side of his face and wanted to stay there, fingers near his mouth, as if trying to guard his words. There weren’t many of them.

He missed his parents. “I miss everybody.” His eyes welled up. “My mom especially,” he said.

No, he didn’t remember the murder, he said. He shook his head, looking miserable. “I think about what I done every day. I’d do anything to take it back. I’m sorry for the pain I caused the victim’s family,” Morgan said. “But I don’t remember nothing.”

How could he not remember? He’d killed an innocent woman; he’d demolished the lives of Trbovich’s children, who would spend more than 10 anguished years attending his criminal trials, seeing the gruesome crime scene photos, hearing the details of the murder again and again, constantly reminded of her last minutes.

He’d wounded his family; ruined his life; and haunted even his lawyers and jurors, who had to stare at the evidence. It was hard to believe he couldn’t remember the horror when he was the one who created it.

But some of the court testimony backed him up. Morgan’s lack of recall was so profound that one of his public defenders — desperate for information so he could mount an insanity defense — hired a hypnotist to pry out the details. After an hourslong trance, Morgan described the delusion about Trbovich tattling on him, a psychologist testified.

The evidence told the rest of the story. Morgan left the knife in the house, as well as his fingerprints, handprints, and footprints. A forensic dentist said Morgan’s teeth even matched Trbovich’s bite mark.

“I wish I hadn’t of hurt my family,” Morgan said. He hated it that his parents suffered, sitting through his criminal trials and waiting for legal appeals.

Morgan’s father died before the start of Morgan’s third trial, in 1985. His mother died of cancer the month after the trial, after hearing her son condemned a third time. The Palm Beach Post noted her death in a small item that called her “the mother of three-time convicted murderer James Morgan” and said nothing else about her life. Morgan didn’t hear from his siblings after his parents’ deaths.

Since his time on the row, 17 fellow inmates had been executed. “You know when it happens because the lights flicker,” he said. The state power company didn’t provide electricity for executions, so the prison used an on-site generator for the 2,000 volts. The lights blinked when the generator powered on. “It’s not a good feeling,” Morgan said.

Do you have hopes you’ll get out, I asked. He paused long enough for me to wonder if he was going to answer. “I never did have too many hopes about anything,” he managed.

Not long after, the interview time was up.

There was no way I could tell if he’d changed since he was 16. Morgan was polite and remorseful. But more than anything, he was dazed.

If I wanted to know whether he could become a different person, I’d need to see him in the future. And I wasn’t sure he had one.

good one of him looking old-james morgan interview 1.MOV-1357.156

The law

Morgan and the other death row teens around the country were part of a uniquely despised group of teenagers who, because of racial bias, retribution, rage or other reasons — none of them scientific — were singled out for the most extreme punishment.

Typically, they were poor. “One searches our chronicles in vain for the execution of any member of the affluent strata of this society,” as U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once put it.

Efforts to address unfairness in teen sentencing continue to be nudged along, incrementally, by the high court. As recently as Jan. 25, in the case Montgomery v. Louisiana, the justices extended the chance of freedom to juveniles serving mandatory life without parole, a sentence that in the past guaranteed that they’d “only leave in a coffin,” as critics put it.

Imprisoning a minor for life under an automatic sentencing scheme is cruel and unusual punishment, the court had ruled in the landmark 2012 case, Miller v. Alabama. Children must be sentenced on an individual basis, with an eye to mitigating circumstances, the court found. Montgomery v. Louisiana forces states to apply Miller retroactively, potentially giving some 1,000 juvenile lifers the possibility of leaving prison.

But there’s no telling how much impact the case will have.

Teens who were 15 and committed murder in the 1970s, like Wayne Thompson in Oklahoma, could be sentenced to death. A 15-year-old who murdered after 1988 could not be condemned because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Thompson v. Oklahoma, which abolished capital punishment for pre-16-year-olds.

Christopher Simmons

After 2005, the line of demarcation was 18. The high court that year ruled in Roper v. Simmons that it is unconstitutional to give a death sentence to people who were minors at the time of their crime. Juveniles are inherently capable of reforming themselves, the justices decided. They aren’t likely to have an “irretrievably depraved” character, because their character isn’t fully developed yet.

The Roper decision ended a practice that had survived for more than 350 years and resulted in more than 360 deaths. Now, the court was saying all those executions were wrongheaded.

[Related: History of Death Penalty for Juvenile Offenders]

“The juvenile death penalty is built around the premise that these offenders are hopeless and will never lead decent lives, and we might as well take them out,” said retired law professor Victor Streib, one of the world’s leading authorities on capital punishment of juveniles, who was a co-counsel for Thompson v. Oklahoma.

“The very nature of children is that they're never hopeless,” Streib said. “To say that they can never be rehabilitated and they can never change — that is always wrong with kids.”

Morgan, for his part, was saved by four legal appeals to the Florida Supreme Court. In each case the justices reversed his death sentence, finding that the trial court made serious errors. In all, Florida spent 17 years and probably more than $1 million in its effort to execute Morgan, Streib once estimated.

Morgan’s first trial was a do-over because the proceedings were split into an insanity and a guilty phase, which was unconstitutional.

Attorney Michael Salnick represented Morgan in 1984, the second appeal: He argued that the trial court improperly denied Morgan an opportunity to present an insanity defense. The justices agreed and remanded again.

In Morgan’s third trial, jurors weren’t allowed to hear medical experts testify about what Morgan said while hypnotized, the key to his insanity defense. Another reversal followed.

By 1994, the fed-up Florida Supreme Court ended the cycle, having found that the fourth trial was flawed, too. The court commuted Morgan’s sentence to life in prison, meaning he would serve 25 years minimum and, at least technically, get a chance of parole.

Salnick, based in West Palm Beach, is one of the few people who stayed in touch with Morgan. He’s been in contact with him on and off ever since handling the appeal, when Morgan was in his early 20s.

“James was always respectful,” Salnick recalled. “He was calm. He read the Bible. Whoever he was on the outside, he wasn’t that person on the inside.”

Since speaking to me about Morgan last year, Salnick has decided to represent Morgan again for what he hopes could be a resentencing.

“I am so happy to be able to attempt to assist him,” he wrote in a Jan. 15 email. No action has been taken yet, but he said he and Morgan settled on a fee. “I had to charge a retainer, so God bless him, he sent me a stamp and we were even.”

james morgan interview 1.MOV-240.207

The walking death sentence

It is March 2015 when I meet Morgan again. I’m in a large, sunny hearing room setting up a camera, and I’m certain I’ll hear him arrive, jangling with metal like last time. Then I look up, and he’s already through the door.

He isn’t wearing shackles, or even handcuffs. He ambles up to me and gives a tentative smile. He is 54 years old, with the thin lips and weary presence of a much older man. He’s been behind bars for 39 years.

Morgan’s hair is silver, and he’s wearing prison blues and dark-framed, oversize glasses that reach a third of the way down his cheeks. A correctional officer pops her head into the room, says, “Here’s your inmate,” and leaves.

Morgan’s current home is Union Correctional Institution, up the road from Florida State Prison. We sit on leather chairs at a long wood table. Birds gabble outside the windows. Morgan sits across from me, occasionally raising his hand to his face, the way he did when I first met him 28 years ago.

This time it has nothing to do with guarding words. He talks slowly, but he doesn’t stop for nearly three hours. He hasn’t seen or heard from a relative in 20 years. Almost no one has visited in decades.

How have you survived, I ask.

“Have I? I dunno,” he says.

He spent his entire young adulthood — from age 17 to 34 — on death row: Dec. 30, 2015 was the 38th anniversary of his death sentence. Now he lives in an “over-50 camp” for the “elderly.” The Department of Corrections calls inmates elderly at 50 because they age quickly, owing to poor health care before prison, and to poor health care inside it, human rights activists would add.

Morgan tells me straight out that he’s a different person than the teenager who arrived in 1977.

“Am I better than him? Yes. Can I change the mistakes he done? No. Am I sorry for what he done? Yes. But I ain't the same person no more. That 16-year-old kid is dead,” he says. His voice trembles. “That 16-year-old kid died a long time ago.

“The trouble is, some people see prisoners as the animal they arrested,” he goes on. “They see you as the animal they put in prison.

“I sometimes I wonder if I would've been better off being executed. Because the only difference between being on death row and being out here is having a walking death sentence. That means never getting out of prison,” he says. “It means being in a parole system that doesn’t wanna parole nobody. Especially an ex-death row inmate or people with a life sentence.”

By the time the Florida Supreme Court took him off death row in 1994, he was already in his 30s. Now he had a new survival challenge.

For his entire adult life he lived alone in a single cell and barely left it aside from brief showers and a few hours a week in an exercise yard. (He played volleyball: “Basketball is too violent.”)

The living within a crowd

Now he was in the general population. His new cell was only slightly larger than the one on death row, and he had to share it with another prisoner. He was in rec yards and chow halls with crowds of men. He saw fights and a few stabbings. He got in fights himself decades ago. “But I matured.”

In the past 12 years he went a decade without a disciplinary report, but he recently got two DRs, he says. One was for “passing a magazine or book or something” from one cell to another; the other was for lying to staff about it, “like a dummy,” he adds. “The correctional officer was right to give ’em to me.”

Death row, in one way, had some happier times. In 1989, while in county jail awaiting his fourth trial, Morgan, 28, married Rita Runge, 26. They met through a “looking for pen pal” ad in a tabloid. They divorced two years later.

“She told me she can’t live her life anymore without knowing what’s gonna happen in the future,” Morgan said.

I had tried to contact dozens of people to ask them how Morgan had changed over the years, including his siblings, who didn’t respond to phone calls, and Florida State Prison inmate James Hitchcock, who taught Morgan how to read and write when the two men were neighbors on death row.

But when I tried to reach Rita Runge, all I found was an online obituary that said she died in 2011. I decide, reluctantly, to tell him about it. He clears his throat and can’t talk for moment. He’d like to see the obituary, he says, and asks me to send it to him.

He got used to thinking about dying on death row, he says, after staring at the table for a while. “It's like having a job — getting up every morning and going to it, right? You get up every morning, you realize you're on death row and the chances are you're gonna die.

“Compared to then, when I was on death row — am I more competent? Yes. Am I more aware? More educated? Yes. Do I want to go out there and make a life for myself? I would like the opportunity to.”

Do you think you have enough remorse? I have to ask.

“I look in the mirror every morning and have to face the fact that I took a human life. And … I can't even begin to express,” he pauses again. “I don't even know what I could say to ’em, except, ‘I’m sorry.’ I can’t blame the victims for wanting me dead,” he says.

“I've paid almost 40 years for my mistake,” he says. “They can make me pay for the rest of my life. And I'm not saying they would be wrong. But at some point you gotta give someone the opportunity to show that he's changed. Unless you got proof that we're a threat to society, give us a chance to prove ourselves.”

“But no one wants to take a chance that an inmate might murder someone again,” I say.

“I’m not going to hurt anybody. The other old people in the prison are like that, too. We’re too old to go out and commit crimes. We’re harmless to the public.

“Guys in here is 70, 75 years old — they can hardly get around anymore. I’m blessed because I'm still physically capable. But I don't know what next year holds.

“If I'm physically disabled,” he says, “and I can't hold a job, and I can't take care of myself — then there's really no reason to get out of prison.”

It’s one of his biggest fears. “When they’re old, the majority of guys in here, they just stop trying to get out. I don't want to be one of them. I want to get out!”

Today he works at the tag factory, making Florida license plates. Previous jobs were pouring cement, working in the kitchen, and doing maintenance and construction work.

I mention that it can be hard out there. Paula Cooper, one of the only death row teens to win parole, was sentenced to death for a murder in Indiana when she was 16. She was released in 2013, was engaged to be married, had a dream job and was beloved by friends and co-workers. But she couldn’t forgive herself for her crime. She committed suicide in May 2015.

“I don’t know,” Morgan says. He doesn’t seem to take in the story. “People say it’s harder getting out than it is getting in. And maybe some of that is true. But I don’t think it’d be that difficult.”

The last time Morgan was out in public was at his father’s funeral in 1985. He was in county jail for his third trial, and he was allowed to attend.

The whole family was there, but the guards didn’t want Morgan to get close to anyone. “I mainly wanted to see my mom,” Morgan says. His eyes tear up. He adjusts his glasses and clears his throat. “They let me stand next to her,” he says. It was the last time he saw her or any other relative.

He went from his parents’ home to a prison cell. He doesn’t know about the Internet, or Walmart, or spending a day without having someone tell him what to do. Everything outside of prison would have to feel alien to him after this many years. The transition would be unimaginable.

Maybe in the end what Morgan represents is a problem that’s unimaginable. No one can undo the harm to the Trbovich and Morgan families. No one can repay Morgan or other teenagers for their years on death row, which — as it turns out — is cruel and unusual punishment, akin to torture, the U.S. Supreme Court has said.

For now, Morgan says he reads the Bible, and goes to church services and AA meetings. “But I know I can go out there if they gave me the chance.”

He doesn’t know exactly what he’d do first if he got freed. But he thinks he’d go to McDonald’s, then to the beach. And he’d like to see the St. Lucie River near his home.

He makes customized license plates these days that say “Save the Manatee,” and those are his favorites. When he was a kid, he saw a manatee once in the river.

“You gotta love manatees,” he says. “They’re so harmless. They’re so innocent.”

Amy Linn, a 2015 Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow, is a freelance writer and magazine editor.

Plea Deal Frees Prisoner but Prolongs Battle Over JLWOP Retroactivity

courtsupremeGeorge Toca, sentenced as a teen to life without parole in 1985  has been released from a Louisiana prison after Orleans Parish prosecutors allowed him to enter an Alford plea, leading to the vacation of his previous sentence. Toca’s case has been at the center of the ongoing legal battle to determine the retroactivity of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller vs. Alabama. According to SCOTUS Blog Toca’s case had been scheduled to be heard by the court this year and would have addressed retroactivity at least in Toca’s case. “Over the past year, the Court has several times turned down the same plea that it agreed to hear in Toca’s case. If that case should now be taken off the is unclear whether the Court would take on the issue in another case.” Get more details at The Times Picayune.

How Prosecutors in Florida Gained Incredible Power Over the Fate of Juveniles

Florida’s Historic Capitol and Florida State Capitol
Florida’s Historic Capitol and Florida State Capitol

From the The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville / (MCT)

The headlines screamed across the world, branding Florida as a state of baby-faced murderers:

“Sun ‘N’ Guns: Florida crime surge rocks Canadians”

“Fear of Florida the latest phobia: State officials are as worried as the tourists”

“State of terror: Florida killing spoils Disney World dream for a million holiday Brits”

That was 1993. Nine tourists visiting the Sunshine State had died violently in the span of a year, several at the hands of gun-wielding teenagers.

Florida’s multibillion-dollar tourist industry was near panic. The Florida legislature called an emergency session.

“Law enforcement, whether it was city police or sheriff’s offices, were screaming to have something done,” said former Florida Rep. Buzz Ritchie “They would pick up a teenager, a child if you will, for doing something that was obviously a felony, but they’re back on the street the next morning.”

What they did was give state attorneys incredible power over the fate of juveniles in the judicial system.

SEE ALSO: Angela Corey's office threatens Jacksonville area juveniles with adult charges, Matt Shirk and private attorneys say

The Times-Union reported Sunday that Public Defender Matt Shirk and private lawyers say State Attorney Angela Corey, whose circuit includes Jacksonville, has used that power to unfairly threaten juveniles with being sent to adult court if they don’t accept record-staining direct commitments to juvenile-incarceration facilities.

Corey’s office said juvenile cases are handled no differently than adult cases, according to a statement released Friday.

Shirk said state law needs to be changed to provide checks and balances.

Confronting Teenage Crime

Direct commitments — the power given to prosecutors in 1994 — are usually plea deals. When juveniles agree to plea deals, they are often incarcerated without the chance to hear the evidence against them, examine police work or interview witnesses. Also, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) typically is not given the chance to evaluate the juvenile’s background and needs.

Shirk’s office estimates that more than 800 juveniles in the past five years were first threatened with adult charges before accepting pleas. The Times-Union’s analysis also found a disproportionate number of low-risk youth from the Jacksonville area are being incarcerated, compared to other Florida judicial circuits.

Before 1994, judges would hold a special hearing, much like a small trial, where both sides would argue their case to decide which court would be best for each contested case.

After this law was changed, state attorneys could send children directly to adult court without that hearing and without a juvenile judge’s go-ahead.

Former state Rep. Elvin Martinez, one of the Democrat sponsors of the bill that gave state attorneys power over direct filing, said lawmakers were forced to act to get juvenile crime under control.

Ritchie, another Democrat co-sponsor of that bill, said juveniles would come in for committing felonies, would get released from juvenile court and, like “a revolving door,” would be back in court days later for another felony.

“We were seeing patterns of behavior from certain juveniles,” said Ritchie, now president of the Gulf Coast Community Bank in Pensacola. “There was some evidence that certain judges would not incarcerate. Certain judges would just turn loose.”

“Some of the prosecutors weren’t acting serious enough, in my opinion,” said Martinez, who is also a retired criminal judge.

But the true driving force was the public perception that crime was out of control in Florida, especially crimes committed by kids.

No Votes Against

In 1993, German tourists Jorg and Sonya Schell had just gotten to their motel after a dinner out in Homestead when a group of teenagers tried to rob them, the Miami Herald reported. Two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old came up to them, and one grabbed Sonya Schell’s purse. She screamed. As her husband rushed toward her, one of the teens shot him fatally in the neck. One teen was sentenced to life in prison, one to 25 years and another to 20 years, the Herald reported.

That fall, British tourist Gary Colley was sleeping in his car at a rest stop on Interstate 10 near Monticello, the Ocala Star-Banner reported. Several youth told him to get out of the car, and Colley threw the vehicle in reverse. Someone shot Colley in the neck through the window, killing him. One of the attackers, who was 16 at the time of the shooting, was sentenced to life in prison, and other teens were given shorter prison sentences, the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times reported.

State lawmakers passed the bill unanimously, along with various others reforming Florida’s juvenile justice system.

A "Baby Step" May Be First

Sending children to adult court is a practice that’s been around for about a century, but it stuck as a legal practice in the 1960s. Questions about which crimes merited adult court were settled when the U.S. Supreme Court decided children as young as 16 could be sent to adult court if they’d committed a felony.

The typical process at that time included a special hearing, called a judicial waiver. Prosecutors would ask the judge for the hearing, both sides would convene and present their cases and the judge would decide whether juvenile or adult court was best.

The Florida legislation then allowed state attorneys to bypass that hearing by sending the juvenile’s case directly to adult court — the process called direct file — starting July 1, 1994.

That law change also let prosecutors send children as young as 14 to adult court if they met a certain criminal threshold, which included committing felonies with guns.

Florida isn’t the only state that allows prosecutors, rather than judges, to make the decision to charge a juvenile as an adult.

Fifteen states give prosecutors that authority, according to the most recent tally from the U.S. Department of Justice. Of those, 11 states allow a juvenile filed in adult court ask a judge to review that decision, a process called a reverse waiver.

Asking for a reverse waiver isn’t an option in Florida.

Marie Osborne, the head of the juvenile division in Miami-Dade’s Public Defender’s Office, said juveniles would be better served with a judicial waiver, where the juvenile judge would make the decision on whether to charge a juvenile as an adult.

Under that structure the state would make arguments for adult court and the defense would make arguments for juvenile sanctions.

“Now that’s due process,” Osborne said.

Osborne said the juvenile system’s caseloads are significantly slimmer than decades ago, providing more time for judges to make the decisions. And now there’s more research and evidence on how juveniles’ brains work.

Rob Mason, the head of the juvenile division for the Public Defender’s Office in Jacksonville, agreed with Osborne because juvenile judges are more familiar with juvenile services and research. But he also said the defense community may have to live with a “baby step” in the form of the reverse waiver.

“We’re hoping for reverse waiver just because we’re trying to get something going that helps us,” Mason said.

"Most powerful office holders"

Lawmakers said they knew the power they were handing state attorneys. That power isn’t a problem as long as it is used properly, they said.

“The prosecutors are the most powerful office holders known to man,” Martinez said. “That’s why it’s so important you have a state attorney who is not ambitious and just follows the law.”

Ritchie said the legislation certainly strengthened state attorneys, and he said he felt they would use this power wisely.

“We strengthened them measurably,” Ritchie said. “We did intend for them to have that discretion.”

When told by a reporter about how Corey’s office is accused of leveraging the threat of direct filing against juveniles, Ritchie said he wasn’t familiar with how Corey runs her office, but couldn’t imagine Corey’s office would be using the threat of direct filing unless prosecutors feel juvenile court won’t give these children the help they need.

“You might have a good percentage of prosecutors that have lost confidence that the juvenile justice system is going to do anything,” he said.

Having the ability to send a child directly to adult court was — and still is — a valuable resource, said Bill Cervone, state attorney for the Gainesville area.

Sending a child to adult court takes consideration, he said, but sometimes it’s the best option for the child. If a teen has a drug problem, sometimes they can get better care from an adult program than a juvenile one. Sending a toughened youth to a juvenile facility where he would be a bad influence on younger, less hardened kids is also a bad idea.

Cervone, who has worked for the state attorney’s office since 1973, said “the basic criteria that motivates [his office] to put a child into adult court really did not change” after state attorneys’ power was expanded.

“Certainly, in those cases that we deemed appropriate, it made the process much simpler,” he said. “I think it is an appropriate use of discretion for us to have so long as you have some guidance, which the legislation has given us.”

When asked about Corey’s specific practices, Cervone said it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment on the operations of another state attorney.

A Change by Law or Ballot

After state law changed in 1994, state attorneys across Florida each had their own way of using the new sovereignty. Some stuck to their old standards and only sent children to adult court when there were no other options, said Frank Orlando, former juvenile and circuit court judge. Some pushed forward with their new power, much like the way Angela Corey’s office currently handles cases.

“Some state attorneys have an automatic list. You do this; you go to adult court,” said Orlando, who is now the director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at Nova Southeastern University in the Fort Lauderdale area. “Any child who was involved with those crimes, no matter what his crime or her crime was, they were just direct filed automatically.”

Changing this power would take nothing less than a change in state law, something current lawmakers say is unlikely. Rather, they said, it’s important that the public voices their opinion by voting for state attorneys whom they trust to use all powers — including direct filing — appropriately.

Shirk, the Jacksonville-area public defender, said the laws on charging juveniles as adults should to be changed to allow for review of these cases, the Times-Union reported Sunday.

“You change the law, then you don’t have those problems. You don’t have those threats,” he said.

Corey said during a November debate on juvenile issues that the state’s laws do not need changing.

“What you have to do is appreciate the laws that our legislators have given us where in Florida we have the ability to put a juvenile into adult court and still give them juvenile sanctions if it’s appropriate,” she said. “It’s a good law; it’s worked for all these years and there’s no reason to change it.”

Florida Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat who represents parts of Jacksonville, said she isn’t surprised to hear complaints that Corey uses coercive tactics to get juveniles to accept plea deals.

“She has always said if there was a gun involved, there would be no mercy, period,” Gibson said. “That doesn’t mean people should be threatened.”

She said she’s displeased with Corey’s methods but said a law change is unlikely.

“Even though I wasn’t in the Legislature when (it) changed the law, I am more than certain that that could not have been the intent of the legislation and it certainly is not proper due process at all,” she said. “I think the state attorney can do better than that. I think they can do better by a young person than that.”

Florida Sen. John Thrasher, a Republican whose district includes St. Johns County, said giving state attorneys the ability to control direct filing gives them an essential tool to do their jobs.

“It’s worked for 20 years. I think it’s always been used in a consistent manner with the law,” he said. “They should have that right. I think it’s appropriate for their job.”

Thrasher voted in 1993 to change state law to give state attorneys authority over direct filing. He noted he was part of a Republican minority, and the bill was supported heavily by the Democratic majority.

Thrasher said it would be inappropriate to comment on the actions of an elected official outside of his district.

“If people feel like they’re not doing their job or they’re doing it inappropriately,” Thrasher said, “then they certainly have the right and they should make that known at the ballot box.”


Meredith Rutland: (904) 359-4161; Topher Sanders: (904) 359-4169


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