Monday, March 12, 2012 By John Barnes
Update: A look at the juvenile life-without-parole cases before the U.S. Supreme Court
He was 14 years, 11 months and 1 day old.
That night TJ Tremble rode his bike to the home of Peter and Ruth Stanley. He had the .22-caliber rifle given him by his dad. He had alcohol in his belly, some also from his dad. And, police say, he had murder on his mind.
Before daylight, the Michigan youth would be behind bars for the rest of his life.
Or maybe not.
Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether mandatory life sentences are too cruel for anyone so young. It will be exactly 14 years, 11 months and 1 day since Tremble got on his bike.
Now 29, is it possible he has changed in the second half of his life, or that he can change with more time?
Should he at least have the consideration to one day walk free?
Or does death make it different?
In a state with more “juvenile lifers” than almost any other, the answers will resonate throughout Michigan as the high court addresses this: Are life sentences, without any chance of parole, unconstitutional even for juveniles who commit unthinkable crimes?
If the court’s earlier rulings are an indication, the answers could be yes.
“It rekindles it,” says Dennis Stanley, son of the murdered Peter and Ruth Stanley, of next week’s hearing. “I was just thinking of that this morning. It’s like counting down to April 1997. We’re still very bitter, angry and, sure, we go about our lives. But no one knows what the victims go through.”
“It never ends,” he says. “It never ends.”
359 juvenile lifers; six who were 14
An MLive Media Group investigation last November detailed how mandatory sentencing laws and get-tough reforms propelled Michigan near the top of the nation in juvenile lifers. Only Pennsylvania has more.
Nearly two dozen inmates were profiled. Several had not committed the killing, but were present. Sometimes the accomplices got more time than the killer, a quirk of mandatory sentencing laws, rejected pleas and juries.
In the midst of the series, the Supreme Court announced it would consider whether juveniles are too impulsive, their brains too underdeveloped, their remaining lives too long to receive the same sentences as adults in death cases.
This story, and stories to come this week, are meant to explore what that could mean for Michigan.
At present, 359 inmates are serving life in the state for crimes committed as minors, one out of seven nationally, according to MLive’s updated analysis. The number was one higher until last month, when a prisoner from Kalamazoo was resentenced to a parolable term – 33 years after he fled a grocery store robbery. His partner stayed behind and killed the owner.
Six of Michigan’s 359 were 14 at the time of their crime – the same as two inmates whose cases are being considered by the Supreme Court.
In addition to Tremble, Michigan’s once-14 lifers include:
• Matthew Bentley, now 29, who shot a Bad Axe homeowner when she confronted him during a 1997 break-in.
• Deante Hawkins, 20, who killed a prominent Detroit restaurant owner during a 2006 robbery. He was three days shy of 15 -- putting him in the class of 14-year-olds directly being reviewed by the Supreme Court.
•Thomas McCloud and Dontez Tillman, now 18 and 17. They were convicted of beating a homeless man to death in Pontiac; McCloud was also convicted in a second, similar death.
•Dakotah Eliason, 16. The Niles teen inexplicably shot his grandfather in the head while he slept in 2010. His case was chronicled in January in The New Yorker magazine.
The six are among more than 2,500 prisoners nationwide serving natural life sentences for killings or involvement in related crimes. The high court cases reflect both scenarios.
If the past is indicative, the inmates have reason to be optimistic; the victims' families less so.
Could Michigan be in the Supreme Court’s crosshairs?
The Supreme Court by 5-4 margins has been chipping away at the nation's severest punishments as applied to minors.
In 2005 it ruled capital punishment was unconstitutional for those who committed their crimes at 17 and younger. In 2010, it expanded the ruling to juveniles serving life in non-homicide cases. In both cases, the court cited emerging science of how immature brain development separates youths from adults.
Now the court is reviewing whether juvenile life without parole is unlawful even in homicide cases. But the justices can do more than a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down:
• The court could limit its ruling to 14-years-olds or younger, though many experts consider that unlikely.
• It could limit its scope to cases were a minor was an accessory, but did not commit the actual killing. About one-third of Michigan’s juvenile lifers fall in that category.
• Or it could direct its focus on those states – including Michigan – with mandatory systems that do not allow age to be considered when juveniles are ordered to life without parole.
That’s what Deborah LaBelle believes the court will do.
“Only 11 states have mandatory life without parole, without any consideration of the effects of youth,” said LaBelle, who represents many of the state’s juvenile lifers on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
“The majority of states have mechanisms to take that into consideration,” LaBelle said. “Getting rid of everything, I don’t think that is a likely outcome.”
Parole still could prove difficult
The nation’s youngest lifers are small compared to the 2,500 overall. Seventy-three were 14 and 13 at the time of their crimes, according to Supreme Court filings.
The six serving time in Michigan for crimes as 14-year-olds are all males, as are most of the state’s juvenile lifers. Unlike others, they are equally split between blacks and whites, and rural and urban backgrounds.
That’s contrary to the state’s juvenile lifer population overall: 69 percent black and largely from urban areas, according to MLive’s analysis. Most were 17 at the time of their crime, but 45 percent were 16 and younger. Wayne County sentenced the most, 41 percent, followed well back by Oakland, Genesee, Kent and Saginaw counties.
Of the class of 14-year-old lifers, all were sentenced after Jan. 1, 1997. That’s when the age group was added to those who prosecutors could automatically try as adults for serious crimes.
Berrien County Prosecutor Arthur Cotter chose that route in the case of Dakotah Eliason, the 14-year-old who killed his sleeping grandfather in 2010, either due to teen angst, mental illness or both.
“I don’t think he’s safe to be on the streets. I don’t think he’ll ever be safe to be on the streets,” said Cotter, who reviewed three psychiatric evaluations that have not been made public. “I don’t think I would sleep safely.”
But even if a Supreme Court ruling converted all of Michigan’s juvenile lifers to parolable sentences, that's a long way from being freed. Such a ruling would only guarantee regular parole review. In Michigan, that begins after 15 years behind bars.
Even then, few meet the parole board's favor. Only about eight prisoners per year serving parolable life are released, according to the Department of Corrections. The parole board interviews between 400 to 500 parolable lifers a year.
“We worry (a favorable Supreme Court ruling) is not a huge step,” LaBelle said.
That’s because juvenile lifers tend to have poorer conduct, fighting to protect and establish themselves in an adult environment. They also have little access to programs reserved for those who will be released. All of that would hurt them before parole boards.
LaBelle believes legislation would be necessary for the boards to offer a “realistic and meaningful opportunity for release,” as outlined earlier by the Supreme Court. If not, she said, “I think it’s ripe for challenge.”
Some critics charge that juvenile lifers, especially those behind bars for decades, are unsuited for return to society no matter how much they have changed.
Bryan Anderson, an Alabama civil rights lawyer, will be the lead attorney next week arguing the juveniles’ case before the Supreme Court. He recalled another client who had been behind bars for 20 years.
“We were told, ‘He’s been in prison too long.’ And we found that a very troubling and somewhat perverse argument,” said Stevenson, though he agreed a strong support and other programs are critical.
The pain of uncertainty
The Bay City Times
But for a matter of weeks, TJ Tremble would be free today.
If he had committed his crime four months earlier, he could not have been tried as an adult under changing laws at the time. At worst, he'd have been held in a juvenile facility until 21.
Today he is 29, at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia. His only hope for eventual release is a successful appeal, a governor's commutation, or the Supreme Court.
Dennis Stanley, son of the murdered Peter and Ruth Stanley, hopes none of the three come true.
He knows Tremble is still appealing his case, that a federal judge found serious problems with how the trial was handled and overturned the conviction, that Michigan’s attorney general is fighting to keep Tremble behind bars.
He did not know Trembles’ lawyer would be in court last week, trying to convince an appeals panel to uphold the lower court. A decision is pending. He did not know that same lawyer will argue the cases before the Supreme Court next week.
And he did not know the arguments will come exactly 14 years, 11 months and 1 day since that awful day – the same age as Tremble when Stanley’s parents were killed.
He pauses for a long moment.
“Is that so?” he says finally, his edge-of-anger voice quieting for the first time. He pauses again.
“Is that so?’
**This information is being shared by Citizens for Prison Reform for purely informational purposes.
Citizens for Prison Reform
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter"
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter"
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"
-Martin Luther King
Website: www.micpr.orgFacebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Citizens-for-Prison-Reform/171253319587634