We Can Hold Youths Accountable Without Life Without Parole

When I was 17, I accepted a plea agreement and 25-year prison sentence to avoid the likelihood of spending the rest of my life in prison.

I had been involved in the death of another person. Prosecutors initially charged me with first-degree murder and aggravated robbery and planned to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. When they offered instead to allow me to plead guilty to the robbery charge plus facilitating first-degree murder, I quickly agreed. My co-defendant wasn’t so fortunate. He was sentenced to life with parole eligibility after 51 years, plus 25 years.

My home state of Tennessee has yet to ban life without parole for children or penalties that are their functional equivalent. Instead, children who are not yet able to vote, buy cigarettes or join the military are told they are worth nothing more than to die in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court has scaled back the use of the most extreme penalties and mandated review opportunities for everyone who, as a child, received a mandatory life without parole order. Yet, as the Associated Press highlighted in a series, where a child committed a crime plays a disproportionately large role in whether their review will truly be meaningful or if they will even have one in a timely manner.

A few days before my arrest, I had been making plans for college, where I hoped to study child development and become a social worker. But I first needed to earn another credit to get out of high school and had asked the younger brother of a fellow gang member to consider enrolling with me.

Once he agreed, we sat around smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. He suggested we act out a scene from a movie. Our plan was go to a convenience store, taking along two guns — one of which was nonfunctioning and the other supposedly had no bullets — to frighten the store employee and anyone who walked up. We’d grab more beer and run.

I agreed to stand watch as he went inside for what seemed like forever. Then I heard gunfire and he ran out. I went into the store and found Mr. Cantrell lying on the floor unresponsive. I ran, and we were arrested a few hours later.

I am deeply remorseful that I had a role in taking the life of another person. I can never repay what I took, and have been inspired to spend my life working to help children avoid the mistakes that I made. I also want to help create a justice system that holds children accountable in age-appropriate ways, accounts for their exposure to trauma and prepares them for reintegration into society.

My story is similar to that of many other youth who have gotten into serious trouble. Throughout my early childhood, I saw my alcoholic father physically abuse my mother. She, my siblings and I were sometimes so afraid that we hid in my bedroom, barricaded the door with furniture and prayed he would never return. I remember one particularly harrowing evening when my mother attempted to escape with the children. He appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, knocked my mother to the ground then grabbed her hair and dragged her through the mud. When she finally broke free, we drove to the police station, where she filed a restraining order against him. I was shaken to my core.

Even after my mother moved us to a new neighborhood, with a new house and a new school, my father showed up drunk late at night, creating lots of noise. The neighbors sometimes came out of their homes just to watch, and neighborhood kids mocked me at school.

By the time I was in sixth grade, though, I began to use academics as an escape from my world. That all changed when we moved again. At the new school, other kids said I spoke up too often in class and studied too much. In an effort to be more like the people around me, I stopped studying and even failed ninth grade. I also became an active gang member. I saw it as a way to end the loneliness.

I developed a practice of ending each school day at lunchtime. Before long, I began transporting and selling marijuana. My mother learned I wasn’t going to class when my high school sent a letter during my senior year, informing her that I had missed so many days of school that I would need to attend summer school in order to graduate.

That led us to that day in 1994, when marijuana, alcohol and the impulsivity of a child with a still-developing brain led me to take part in an unthinkable crime.

While in prison, I grew up. I denounced my gang membership, earned my GED, became a licensed barber and studied psychology and child development. These classes helped me understand the impact of the trauma that I and others had experienced and enabled me to counsel others in denouncing their gang memberships.

In addition, I completed anger management counseling and joined the Parents in Prison group, which helped men focus on the needs of their children. I was not a parent, so I spent the next year thinking about my needs as a child and how those needs could be addressed for children in situations similar to what I had experienced.

On my third visit to the parole board — and after I had served 10 years — the board granted my release. I stayed in Nashville and worked for a barbershop for a while. Then I began volunteering in a local school, working with children who were disruptive in the classroom, teaching them conflict resolution skills and helping them access other services they needed. I was then asked to do this work as an AmeriCorps volunteer with the Community Health Corps in Nashville, then as a full-time employee of the agency.

I was later was hired to direct a YMCA of Middle Tennessee outreach program that provided services to 25 to 30 students each year who faced issues similar to what I had experienced as a middle school student. Along the way, I also helped found the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), a national network comprised of and led by individuals who went to prison as children for serious crimes and are now out living productive lives. All our members were charged with homicide-related crimes and/or faced life without parole as a child.

My original 25-year sentence expired March 3, 2016. I had no infractions during my 12 years of parole. A year later, I joined the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, where we work to replace life without parole and other extreme penalties for children with age-appropriate accountability that accounts for children’s experiences and unique capacity for change.

I’ve dedicated every day of my free life to demonstrating that I am worthy of this second chance. I’ve tried to make sure fewer families suffer the same losses as the Cantrell family. I’ve poured myself into the lives of many.

And I am not unique. The members of ICAN, which I now help to coordinate, do the same, as do many other formerly incarcerated youth I have never met. We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done. We just need an opportunity to prove it.

Eric Alexander is youth justice advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. He is a founder, member and coordinator of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network.

Former Inmate, Advocates and Attorneys Honored for Work to Reform Sentencing

Sharletta C. Evans with Joanne Lewis, the mother of one of the killers. After Joanne asked Sharletta to forgive her for her son's actions, the two became close friends and now speak together about forgiveness and mercy.
Sharletta C. Evans (right) with Joanne Lewis, the mother of one of the killers of her son. After Joanne asked Sharletta to forgive her for her son's actions, the two became close friends and now speak together about forgiveness and mercy.

WASHINGTON — Wine and tears poured and tissues were borrowed as several juvenile justice reform advocates were honored for their work to end life without parole for juvenile offenders.

The first award winners at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth’s highly emotional Hope & Healing awards ceremony Tuesday were Steve Drizin and Laura Nirider, the advocates working to earn “Making a Murderer” star Brendan Dassey his freedom.

Gary Tyler, sentenced to death at age 16 in 1974 by an all-white Louisiana jury, was honored for his work while incarcerated and his anti-death penalty advocacy. His legal team — made up of George Kendall, Mary Howell, Majeeda Snead, Corrine Irish and Emily Ratner — was also honored for the decadeslong and eventually successful struggle to free Tyler.

Sharletta Evans received an award for her work in bringing victims and offenders together to promote restorative justice after her 3-year-old son, Casson, was killed in a driveby shooting.

“[Selecting the award recipients] is always a difficult decision, because there are so many extraordinary people doing this work,” said Jody Lavy, the campaign’s executive director. “We try to demonstrate the different facets of the work in Healing & Hope, because we are a convener of people who are working to end life without parole for children.”

There is still much to do to end life without parole for juveniles, she said. Age-appropriate punishments should be developed to recognize juveniles’ ongoing mental development and ability to grow and become rehabilitated, she said.

Gary Tyler and his legal team hold their awards, with Campaign Executive Director Jody Kent Lavy at far right.

In the past three years, the number of states that have barred such sentencing has tripled, due in part to the efforts of advocates like those honored at the event, Lavy said. The event raised $135,000, $17,700 from live donations, $2,300 from the silent auction and $115,000 from ticket sales and sponsorships. The money will go to continuing the campaign’s work, such as working to decrease the number of states that allow juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life without parole.

Lavy opened the ceremony, saying that after the presidential election, there has never been a time when healing and hope are more necessary in America.

Drizin and Nirider’s award was painted by Ken Sanford, a Pennsylvania inmate serving a life without parole sentence. After years of work, a federal judge has overturned Dassey’s conviction, but the Wisconsin attorney general has filed a motion to temporarily block his release. Drizin said there is more work to be done to get Dassey home for Thanksgiving.

“I think all of us are feeling that we need to be healed, and we need hope today,” he said. “I know that we can get through these dark times. I know that this community will continue on a path of justice for these kids.”

Throughout his career in juvenile justice law, Drizin successfully worked to end the death penalty for juveniles. He also represented Derrick Hardaway, who was termed a 14-year-old “superpredator” in 1996 and sentenced to 45 years. “We continued to work on Derrick’s case after he went away,” Drizin said. “I kept in touch with Derrick over the years and he has become an amazing young man. Someone who wants to get out and talk to kids in the juvenile detention center.”

Evans spoke of the need for healing and forgiveness in her acceptance speech. She was joined by her friend Joanne Williams, the mother of one of the teenagers involved in the death of her son, Casson. Evans has been a leader in Colorado to promote legislation like the restorative justice law passed in 2013. She credited God for inspiring her to forgive her son’s murderers and become a juvenile justice reform advocate.

“In amazement, I sit back and look at myself at a distance and watch the work that’s being done by the power of God’s spirit,” she said. “Being a victim family member, you have to heal before you have hope, and I embrace every opportunity … to heal properly and that’s what gave me the hope that these teenagers, now adults, would see the light of day. I am so grateful to be an advocate.”

Tyler was joined on stage by his legal team and more than a dozen formerly incarcerated juveniles. He was sentenced to death in 1974 after he was wrongly convicted of murder. After setbacks and years of work, he was freed April 29.

“Gary was in solitary confinement for eight years,” Kendall said. “Most people who do that kind of time never recover, and somehow Gary did. I don’t know of another prisoner, at least that I’ve had the honor to work with, that built the kind of purposeful life that Gary built.”

Tyler thanked his legal team and the older inmates who helped him survive adult prison as a juvenile. He had volunteered to take care of elderly inmates and eventually cared for the same men who helped him as a youth. He also began the Angola Drama Club, a prison theater troupe that performed throughout Louisiana.

OP-ED: Reflections on Miller v. Alabama: Roses, Thorns and Buds

Tamar Birckhead newTo generate some (hopefully) meaningful conversation around our dinner table, I have begun to use a tool that my daughters picked up at one of their summer camps: “Rose, thorn and bud.” We each describe a good thing from our day (the rose), followed by a lousy thing (the thorn), and then conclude with something we are looking forward to (the bud). The exercise enables each person to share several different moments from the past 12 hours with the rest of the family; it doesn’t require too much effort or contemplation, and it is relatively light-hearted. In fact, not infrequently the rose is the dinner itself and the bud is the dessert. The discussion that follows rarely leads to anything profound, but the ritual forces us to pause, consider the day’s events and make an effort to connect.

Imagine my surprise when I attended the annual convening of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) in November and the same prompt was used. A group of about 40 of us — lawyers and advocates, family members of those serving juvenile life without parole sentences (JLWOP), and former juvenile lifers — had been divided into geographical regions and were seated around tables in a small meeting room at the Hyatt Hotel near Union Station in Washington, D.C. “Please share a rose, thorn, and bud since the last convening,” the facilitator at my table directed, “and consider how things have changed.”

For most of us this meant reflecting on the impact of the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama that ended mandatory JLWOP and required individualized sentencing hearings. While it was a promising opinion by the Court, it was not the decision many of us hoped would end, once and for all, life imprisonment for juvenile offenders.

As we took our turns, it was clear that the past year had meant different things to each of us — with many thorns among us. For the mom of a young man serving JLWOP whose new sentencing hearing resulted in the imposition of the same sentence, the Miller decision represented dashed hopes.

For a father whose state had ruled that Miller did not apply retroactively, it meant complete devastation. For a former juvenile lifer who had been released, there was the rose of freedom but the thorns of guilt and sadness for his friends who were still — and would likely remain — incarcerated.

When it was my opportunity to speak, I shared what I am perhaps best equipped to offer to the discussion: perspective on the broader legal landscape and how quickly it has shifted to reflect an enlightened view of adolescent culpability and capacity, as well as an endorsement of the proportionate sentencing of youth.

I recalled that only eight years ago, it was legal in the United States to put juvenile defendants to death, but that Roper v. Simmons ended that practice when the Supreme Court ruled that it violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

I reminded folks that only three years ago, it was legal to sentence juveniles to LWOP for non-homicides, but that Graham v. Florida ended that practice as well.

And while Miller v. Alabama didn’t impose a flat ban on JLWOP, the decision did require that before such a sentence may be imposed as punishment for homicide, the offender’s age, background, mental and emotional development must be considered. Likewise, the Court specifically emphasized that the offender’s immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences — basic hallmarks of youth — must also be taken into account.

One year later, there aren’t many roses, but then again, thorns exist to protect the flower’s petals and blossoms from those who try to graze on them. It’s not a perfect analogy, to be sure, but there is cause for feeling optimistic, for hoping that the bud is the celebration we will have at next year’s CFSY convening, when we will be one step closer to ending the practice of sentencing children to die in prison.


Tamar R. Birckhead is associate professor of law and interim director of clinical programs at the University of North Carolina School of Law.

Michigan Attorney General to Appeal Order Giving Juvenile Lifers Chance for Parole

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette delivers his address at his inauguration on the steps of the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on January 1, 2011
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette delivers his address at his inauguration on the steps of the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on January 1, 2011

Michigan’s attorney general announced Monday that he will appeal a federal judge’s order requiring the state to consider paroling about 350 prisoners serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

"First-degree murder is a serious crime, and it carries with it serious consequences," AG Bill Schuette said in a news release.

"In every case where a juvenile is sentenced to life in prison, a victim was already sentenced to death – forever. The victim's family then grapples with the aftermath of post-traumatic stress, depression, unyielding grief and visits to a grave."

He said last week’s order would force families of murder victims to “relive the crime that took their loved ones away.”

Schuette said the order called for hearings not required by the U.S. Supreme Court or state courts, adding that “it ignores the authority of state court sentencing judges to object to parole when public safety requires it.”

The order, issued by U.S. District Court Judge John C. O'Meara, applies to inmates who have served at least 10 years.

In an earlier ruling, O’Meara had cited the 2012 Miller vs. Alabama Supreme Court case in which the high court ruled mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In his order, O’Meara cited Miller as well as the 2010 Graham vs. Florida Supreme Court ruling that sentences of life without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional for crimes other than murder.

The Supreme Court has noted in its rulings that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.

O’Meara’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan on behalf of nine Michigan citizens who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles.

The suit challenged a law requiring that children charged with crimes including first-degree murder be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced to life without parole.

“This is a civil rights action challenging the treatment of youth inconsistent with their status and alleging that their punishment is cruel and unusual,” Deborah LaBelle, the lead attorney in the case, told

LaBelle said courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly made it clear that life without parole for those convicted of crimes they committed as juveniles amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“So we challenged that statute, saying that’s inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling that youths should have a meaningful opportunity for release upon maturation and growth,” she said.

LaBelle expressed shock that Schuette announced plans to appeal O’Meara’s order.

“It’s eternally surprising to me that the state would want to continue to impose punishment that the U.S. Supreme Court has said is cruel and unusual, particularly an attorney general, who’s supposed to be upholding the state and the U.S. Constitution.

“The only argument I’ve heard in support of wanting to fight it is the attorney general continually citing the rights of victims’ families, but they’re not monolithic,” LaBelle said.

“We’ve had many families of victims who support the second chance and the process going forward on a fair basis ... The only way to fairly go forward for all victims’ families is to have an equitable process in which they have a voice.”

Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator at the Washington-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which seeks to end the practice of life without parole for juvenile offenders, praised O’Meara’s ruling and order.

“I think that this is exactly the kind of approach that the Supreme Court intended in its rulings in Miller and in Graham, as it scaled back extreme sentences that have been imposed on young people in our country,” Lavy said.

“In both decisions, the [Supreme Court] emphasized the need for rehabilitation and for accountability measures for children and certainly said repeatedly that because kids are not adults and they are still developing that we can’t impose these final irrevocable judgments on them while they’re still growing and changing, and so we should be able to provide an opportunity to check in on them later in life.”

Lavy criticized the Michigan attorney general’s decision to appeal the order.

“It’s an unfortunate use of Michigan taxpayer dollars that they’re going to spend on litigation rather than focusing energy on fixing a system that the [U.S. Supreme Court] court has ruled unconstitutional,” she said.

Schuette argued the Supreme Court’s rulings should not apply to inmates already in prison. He pointed to the Supreme Court’s 1989 Teague v. Lane ruling, which he said established what’s commonly known as the “Teague Rule,” stipulating that Supreme Court rulings are generally not retroactive in matters of judicial process.

He also cited a state court ruling: In November 2012, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Miller vs. Alabama does not apply retroactively to people convicted of murder as teenagers who have already been found guilty and exhausted their direct appeals.

Schuette also said O’Meara’s ruling could undermine the statutory authority of state judges to block parole for violent criminals when public safety justified doing so.

In his order, O’Meara said Michigan must create an “administrative structure” to determine which inmates should be eligible for parole for crimes committed as juveniles.

The order said those who have served at least 10 years must be given notice that their eligibility for parole “will be considered in a meaningful and realistic manner.”

He ordered the state to comply with the order by Dec. 31.

It also requires the state to:

• Schedule proceedings, including public hearings, for eligible prisoners seeking parole.

• Set up a procedure to determine whether each eligible prisoner’s application should be considered by the entire state Parole Board.

• Ensure the proceedings are “fair, meaningful and realistic.”

• Make certain the Parole Board explains its decision in each case.

O’Meara’s order also forbids vetoes of Parole Board decisions by a judge or anyone else and requires that no prisoner sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed as a juvenile will be deprived of “any educational or training program which is otherwise available to the general prison population.”

If the state fails to comply with the order by Jan. 31, the judge threatened to appoint a special master “to make available to prisoners sentenced to life without parole for juvenile crimes the process this order envisions.”

Sparing Children from Life in Prison without Parole

West Memphis Police Department mug shots of the "West Memphis Three"
West Memphis Police Department mug shots of the "West Memphis Three"

WASHINGTON – Jason Baldwin hopes to spare others from growing up, growing old – and dying – in prison.

Baldwin, who was sentenced to life without parole at 16 for a crime he did not commit, served 18 years and since his release in 2011 has become a crusader against sentencing youths to life without parole. He is one of the “West Memphis Three” – who as teenagers in 1994 were convicted of the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Ark.

The 36-year-old Baldwin, who now lives in Seattle, brought his message to the nation’s capital Wednesday night at an annual reception and fundraiser of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national organization that seeks to abolish life-without-parole sentences for all youth.

Jason Baldwin
Jason Baldwin

“I cannot believe that we are a society where we would place no value in people who have made a mistake --  no matter how terrible -- at a young age,” Baldwin told

He spoke of convicted murderers he met in prison who in 1994 showed no remorse and who he believed at the time deserved to spend life in prison.

But he said he has seen them transformed over the years.

“I’ve seen them grow, I’ve seen them mature, I’ve seen them take advantage of any opportunity they can to teach themselves, to learn things, to nurture and to be caring and compassionate,” Baldwin said.

He recalls sitting in prison in Arkansas with other inmates convicted of murder.

“I saw them. They led very respectable, responsible lives in prison,” he said. “They took opportunities to educate themselves, to help one another. And that’s the key right there. They helped each other. They helped me. They helped anybody they could, and they cared about people.

“So now these guys who did those things, who exhibited no regard for life, turned around and they showed care, they showed empathy. So they developed those somewhere along the way and will help people and care for people and, if put in the situation they were in to earn their time, they would never do [the same crime] again.”

Baldwin says he’s hopeful society will ultimately decide against life sentences without parole for juveniles.

He points to U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including Miller vs. Alabama, in which the high court ruled last year that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles are unconstitutional.

Baldwin, one of four honorees at the CFSY event, found a receptive audience, including people who had been incarcerated as juveniles but have since been released, families of those who have been incarcerated since they were juveniles as well as lawyers and advocates for children.

He says he intends to continue campaigning against life-without-parole sentences for juveniles until they’re abolished.  Baldwin said he has earned an associate’s degree and plans to write a memoir before returning to school to receive a bachelor’s degree, after which he hopes to attend law school.

Healing and Hope, the annual reception and fundraiser of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
Healing and Hope, the annual reception and fundraiser of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Jody Kent Lavy, CFSY’s director and national coordinator, said at the reception that a lot of progress has been made in the past year toward eliminating life-without-parole sentences for children but that big challenges remain.

Lavy noted the Miller vs. Alabama decision and said, “Children who were told they were worth nothing more than death in prison have lawyers and have people fighting for them to get them back into court.”

She pointed out that Delaware, Texas and Wyoming have abolished life without parole for children within the past year.

And, Lavy said, “More policymakers and judges than ever before understand the fundamental differences between children and adults, understand that it is inappropriate and irresponsible to sentence our children to die in prison.”

The Supreme Court has noted juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and young people are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.

But the progress notwithstanding, Lavy said state legislatures have passed legislation sanctioning life without parole for children and that some states, including Pennsylvania and Louisiana, have said the Miller decision is not retroactive, meaning it wouldn’t apply to those in prison now who were sentenced as juveniles before the decision.

The others honored at the CFSY reception were:

  • Sara Kruzan, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in California when she was 16 for killing someone who reportedly had sexually abused her for years. Kruzan was released Oct. 31 after a California judge made her immediately eligible for parole. While incarcerated, Kruzan, described as a model prisoner, had mentored women inside and outside prison, earned an associate’s degree and is working on a bachelor’s degree.

  • Participant Media, whose feature film, TV, documentary and other forms of media seek to inspire social change. Participant’s films include “Lincoln,”  “The Help” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” In connection with the release of “Snitch,” the media company collaborated with CFSY on several public education projects, including videos and infographics.

  • WilmerHale, an international law firm whose attorneys visited nearly every prisoner in Virginia affected by the Miller vs. Alabama decision. The firm helped develop legal strategies and filed the first briefs on behalf of clients in Virginia as a leader in CFSY’s project to implement the Supreme Court decision in that state. WilmerHale has long been known for its pro bono work.

Appeal Likely in Juvenile Lifer Ruling

Five of seven judges seats in the Supreme Court chamber in the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.
Five of seven judges seats in the Supreme Court chamber in the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.

From The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (MCT)

Joseph Aulisio killed two children. Christian Kenyon helped murder a rival gang member.

Both of the Lackawanna County men were juveniles when they committed their crimes and were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Now two recent rulings by the state Supreme Court have given Kenyon hope he could someday receive a lesser sentence, while Aulisio is destined to die in prison.

Their cases illustrate what advocates for juvenile justice say is the blatant unfairness of a state Supreme Court ruling issued Wednesday that will preclude hundreds of juvenile lifers from seeking new sentencing hearings.

Calling the ruling "appallingly unjust," attorneys with the Juvenile Law Center and Defender Association of Philadelphia say they will likely appeal the decision, issued in the case of Ian Cunningham of Philadelphia, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling relates to the landmark 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller vs. Alabama that declared mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional. The court found such sentences violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 4-3 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling cannot be applied retroactively to cases in which a juvenile had exhausted all their appeals before the high court decision was issued. The ruling is at odds with a separate ruling the state Supreme court issued in the case of Qu'eed Batts, which said the Miller case is applicable to cases where a juvenile's appeals are still pending.

In Lackawanna County, Kenyon, a Scranton street gang member who at age 17 was convicted of helping two other men kill Allen Fernandez in 2009, was recently granted a new sentencing hearing based on the Batts ruling. No hearing has been set yet as he has an appeal pending of his conviction before the state Supreme Court, said his attorney, Robert Buttner.

Aulisio of Old Forge, who was 15 at the time of his crime, will not get that chance, however. He was convicted of killing 8-year-old Cheryl Ziemba and her 4-year-old brother, Christopher, in 1981 and exhausted his appeals long before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Miller case.

Bradley Bridge, an attorney with the Defender's Association, said the court's latest ruling in the Cunningham case is "exceedingly unfair," as it violates a basic tenant of justice that calls for equal treatment of all defendants.

Buttner said he's also troubled by the court's ruling in the Cunningham case, even though it does not affect his client. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling was based on the premise that juvenile's mind is not fully developed, therefore a judge must be given latitude to consider each juvenile's situation, including background, upbringing and likelihood of being rehabilitated, in deciding whether to sentence a juvenile to life.

"Are we saying children's immaturity and development is less now than it was in the 1980s and 1990s?" Buttner asked.

Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association, said the focus should be on the question of fairness to victims and their families, who deserve to have some finality to their cases.

"There is always a balancing that goes on with the criminal justice system," Long said. "The survivors of murder victims have had to deal with the loss of a loved one taken from them by a juvenile murderer. Would it be fair to have those cases reopened for another sentencing?"

The ruling affects nearly 500 inmates statewide, according to Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center.


©2013 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services


Juveniles Serving Life Sentences Not Entitled to New Hearings

PA Supreme Court-croppedThe Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa. (MCT)

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled a U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared sentences of life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional cannot be applied retroactively, striking a significant blow to hundreds of inmates statewide, including a notorious child killer from Lackawanna County.

Joseph Aulisio, formerly of Old Forge, is among inmates who sought to overturn their sentences based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. A second man, Kenneth Crawford from Luzerne County, also sought to overturn his life sentence for murders of two people in Hollenback Twp.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a June 2012 ruling, said sentences of life without parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court did not say whether its decision could be applied to defendants, like Mr. Aulisio and Mr. Crawford, who had already exhausted all of their appeals, however. That decision was left up to individual state courts.

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court took up the issue in September 2012 when it heard the appeal of Ian Cunningham of Philadelphia, who was 17 when he shot and killed a man during a robbery. Mr. Cunningham had already exhausted his appeals by the time the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was issued.

In a 4-3 decision issued Wednesday, the state appellate court determined the U.S. Supreme Court ruling does not apply in Mr. Cunningham's case.

The ruling had been highly anticipated by defense attorneys and prosecutors statewide. Had the court ruled the other way, it's estimated nearly 500 inmates would be eligible for new sentencing hearings, said Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which filed appeals on behalf of numerous inmates.

Mr. Aulisio was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for the 1981 shotgun slayings of 8-year-old Cheryl Ziemba and her 4-year-old brother, Christopher. Mr. Aulisio, who was 16 at the time, was arrested days after the childrens' bodies were discovered in strip pits in Old Forge.

Mr. Crawford and another man were convicted of killing Diana Algar and Jose Molina at the Paradise Camp Resort in Hollbenback Twp. in 1999, when Mr. Crawford was 15.

The ruling in the Cunningham case means Mr. Aulisio and Mr. Crawford cannot use the U.S. Supreme Court decision as a legal basis to challenge their sentences.

A second Lackawanna County man, Christian Kenyon, who was sentenced to life without parole for a murder committed as a juvenile, may be entitled to a new sentencing hearing, however, based on a separate state Supreme Court ruling issued earlier this year, said Lackawanna County District Attorney Andy Jarbola.

Mr. Kenyon, a Scranton street gang member, was 17 when he participated in the execution-style shooting of Allen Fernandez in 2009. Mr. Jarbola said Mr. Kenyon's case differs from Mr. Aulisio's in that Mr. Kenyon had appeals pending in state court when the U.S. Supreme Court ruling came down. The state Supreme Court, in a ruling issued in the case of Qu'eed Batts of Philadelphia, earlier this year determined the U.S. Supreme Court ruling did apply in cases where appeals were pending.

Mr. Jarbola said he's pleased by the court's latest ruling as it ensures that Mr. Aulisio's sentence will stand. As for Mr. Kenyon, should his case come back for re-sentencing, Mr. Jarbola noted he could again be sentenced to life in prison without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling does not preclude a judge from sentencing a juvenile to life. It only requires that the judge conduct an independent review of the case and state his or her reasoning on the record.

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Connecticut Mulls Outlawing Juvenile Life Without Parole

Connecticut’s Sentencing Commission is currently evaluating a proposal that would outlaw juvenile sentences of 10 years or greater without parole opportunities, The CT Mirror reports.

The proposal, if enacted, would affect every juvenile in the state currently sentenced to 10 or more years. Offenders sentenced to 60 years or less would have parole hearings after serving half of their sentences, while offenders sentenced to 60 or more years under the proposal would have parole eligibility after serving 30 years.

Under the sentence modifications, young people sentenced to 20 years would become eligible for parole by the time they were 24, while 17-year-olds sentenced to 60 or more years would have parole opportunities when they turned 47.

The proposal includes an additional plan that would seek to develop “Certificate of Rehabilitation“ programs, which are “aimed at reducing barriers faced by individuals with convictions and encouraging reintegration into communities.”

A public hearing on the proposal will be held on Nov. 29 at the state capitol in Hartford. The state’s Sentencing Commission is then scheduled to approve or decline the proposal at a meeting held on Dec. 20.

Appeals Accepted in First Miller Cases

Less than three weeks after a Supreme Court ruling mandated it, an Iowa court gives two inmates the right to appeal the life without parole sentences they were given years ago when they were 17 years old.

“We’re thrilled to see these concrete steps being made,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “They are obviously required to do so,” she added.

The Iowa cases may be the first nationwide re-opened under Miller v. Alabama.

The Supreme Court said in Miller that sentencing judges must consider mitigating factors in dealing with juvenile homicide cases. That invalidates about 2,400 sentences nationwide in federal courts and the 28 states where juveniles have been sent to life without parole under mandatory sentencing schemes. Mandatory sentencing laws ignore age, youth brain development, life history and all other factors.

And now defense attorneys are calling to consult Gordon Allen, who represents Iowa inmate Christine Lockheart.

“The Supreme Court says now the defendant is different and in court we will show how she’s different,” said Allen. He filed with Iowa Court of Appeals a motion for illegal sentencing right after the Miller verdict. The court vacated the sentence on July 11.

Now Allen is preparing Lockheart’s appeal, which he expects will be heard sometime in the next two to five weeks. He also said, however, that he will suggest a plea bargain.

In Iowa at any time attorneys can challenge an illegal sentence, Allen explained, but added that not all states have the same statute.

“If you can’t find it in the rules, make it up,” he advises attorneys.  “This is a Constitutional decision. If you don’t have a motion to correct an illegal sentence, file one anyway.”

He’s communicated via e-mail with Lockheart since the decision and said it was “big news” in prison.

Lockheart was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1985. She had been sitting outside in a truck when her boyfriend went in the home of a Lockheart family friend and killed the older man.

Iowan Thomas Bennett had his sentence for the 1998 shooting death of a Des Moines man vacated the same day as Lockheart.

Allen said, “the mitigating evidence allowed will be quite similar to what’s allowed in a death penalty case.” That is, a very broad list of things will qualify for inclusion, almost anything in a defendant’s history.

He has one other piece of advice for defense attorneys in Miller cases: “You have to be extremely responsible to and aware of victims … The victims are understandably upset their relative is not here and will never be here again.”

The National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers brings together grieving families.

“While we understand the tragic consequences to the killers, the entire context of this decision is first and foremost the appalling and senseless murders of our innocent loved ones and the devastation left behind,” said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, NOVJL president, in a statement.  Her organization says Miller reopens the judicial part of their painful ordeals that victim families considered closed.

Photo from The Bilerco Project.


Suspense Builds in Advance of Supreme Court Ruling on Juvenile Sentencing

WASHINGTON - While most of the nation anxiously awaits a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the federal health care law, juvenile justice reform advocates are on tenterhooks over a ruling expected next week over mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life without parole.

At stake is the question of whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to put minors in prison for the rest of their lives without any possibility of release, even if they killed someone or were involved in a murder, without considering their age or circumstances.

The court’s ruling will be on two separate but related cases involving two 14-year-old boys sentenced to life without parole under mandatory sentencing laws in their states, Alabama and Arkansas.

On two previous occasions, the Supreme Court has affirmed that under the Eighth Amendment, juveniles could not be given death sentences or life sentences without parole for crimes other than murder because to do so would be excessive. Now, it must decide whether it is excessive for states to do so even in the case of murder or manslaughter.

The Court has released opinions on all but five cases argued before it this term, according to the website SCOTUSblog. Juvenile-justice watchers hoped that Thursday would be the day they’d get the court’s rulings on Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, the cases involving the two 14-year-olds, but those were not among the four decisions released this morning.

The court never announces in advance which rulings it will release. Monday is the next day for rulings, with Thursday, June 28, likely to be the last day for remaining rulings to be made public.

In the last 40 years, about 7,000 children have been arrested for murder or manslaughter, of which only 79 have been sentenced to life without parole, making such a sentence very rare, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, who argued on behalf of the boys in both cases, told the court in oral arguments in March. Nationwide, only 41,000 people are serving life sentences without parole, making those 79 children a miniscule percentage of the total, he said.

“This is an exceedingly rare sentence where the majority of states have never chose to impose it,” Stevenson said. “That would provide a basis for this Court to conclude that it is cruel and unusual.”