Judge hears arguments on no-parole law: LaBelle is arguing for ACLU that life sentences for teens are unconstitutional

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Henry Hill was 16 years old in 1980 when he and two cousins went to a Saginaw park where they encountered Anthony Thomas, a young man with whom Hill's cousins had prior conflicts. After the cousins shot at Thomas, Hill reportedly shot into the air before fleeing the park. His cousin, Larnell Johnson, stayed behind, shooting and killing Thomas.

At Saginaw High, Hill had been tested at a third-grade IQ and assessed as having the maturity level of a pre-adolescent. Nonetheless, he was charged with aiding and abetting first degree murder. Based on this charge, the juvenile court waived its jurisdiction, and Hill stood trial as an adult, was convicted by a jury, and sentenced to the mandatory life in prison.

Hill, now 46, has exhausted all prison educational programs and resources available to him. The Michigan Parole Board does not have jurisdiction to consider him for parole.

But that could change if a federal judge agrees with the American Civil Liberties Union that sentencing kids as young as 14 to life in prison without chance of parole amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Judge John Corbett O'Meara heard arguments recently in Ann Arbor's Federal Courthouse that the state has violated the civil rights of Hill and eight other plaintiffs.

"This is an important case that raises issues of great importance to both parties," he said.

All nine plaintiffs were charged and tried as adults for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18, punished by a mandatory adult sentence of life imprisonment with no chance for parole.

Under Michigan law, seventeen-year-olds are treated as adults in all criminal proceedings and juveniles aged fourteen and up are automatically charged as adults for homicide offenses, absent the prosecutor filing a petition in juvenile court.

Five of the nine plaintiffs did not actually commit homicide, but were "aiders and abetters" who were involved when a murder took place.

Their ages at the time of the crimes ranged from 14 to 17.

Speaking on behalf of the ACLU, Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle argued that no other state gives such a harsh punishment to kids as young as 14.

She insisted she was not asking for their convictions to be overturned, and acknowledged that they may very well spend the rest of their lives in prison.

But she told the judge the statute that prohibits the parole board from looking at them is unconstitutional.

"These are kids we owe a second look," said LaBelle, who believes the state is in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments. "The issue is: A child is a child, and they're different."

Representing the state of Michigan, Assistant Attorney General Margaret A. Nelson defended the law and asked O'Meara to dismiss the lawsuit.

She said arguments similar to the plaintiffs' have already been rejected by courts in several other states. And she said the Statute of Limitations bars the claims.

In a court filing, Nelson noted that the plaintiffs' exclusion from parole consideration because of their conviction and sentence does not depend on any continued wrongful conduct by the state.

"Only a change in the law, not in Defendants' conduct, would result in a different outcome," she wrote.

In the 2010 case of Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment if the crimes that did not involve killings.

Chief Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the idea of sentencing juveniles to life without parole had been rejected the world over.

In 2005, the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders.

O'Meara said that recent court rulings indicate a possible leaning in the plaintiffs' favor.

Nelson disagreed, insisting that the Graham decision made a clear distinction between homicide and non-homicide cases.

She said the plaintiffs are not making a new claim; nor are they "plowing new ground."

Since 2008, the Michigan Parole Board has had the authority to grant release to all individuals sentenced to life imprisonment except for individuals serving a life sentence for murder in the first degree.

There are now 351 prisoners in Michigan serving life sentences for murders they committed as juveniles, said LaBelle. In many cases, they were not the ones who actually pulled the trigger.

LaBelle noted that the U.S. is the only country in the world that permits and imposes a life without possibility of parole sentence on persons who commit their offense prior to the age of 18.

Following the court proceedings, she talked with reporters about the other plaintiffs.

She said Keith Maxey was 16 in 2007 when he accompanied two adults to meet some men to buy marijuana. Three people were shot during the drug deal, including Maxey. One was killed.

Tyrell Adams, 20, pled guilty to second degree murder for shooting the victims. Antoine Bailey, also 20, was convicted of assult with intent to commit murder and sentenced to 15 years.

Maxey was automatically charged and tried as an adult, and is now serving a life term.

"He didn't have a gun, but he's going to die in prison for this," said LaBelle.

Jennifer Pruitt, a 16-year-old runaway with no prior criminal record, participated in a plan to rob one of her neighbors in Pontiac. Elmer Heichel let Pruitt and 23-year-old Donnell Miracle into his house at 1:30 a.m. on August 30, 1992. Jennifer went to use the bathroom and then into the back room to steal the neighbor's wallet. When she came out, she witnessed Miracle stabbing Heichel.

Pruitt reported the murder and her involvement to the police that same day, leading to the subsequent arrest of Miracle.

Pruitt was automatically charged as an adult with first degree murder and armed robbery. Under Michigan law, the court had no discretion to give her any sentence other than life in prison. As in each of the nine cases, the Michigan Parole Board does not have jurisdiction to consider her for parole.

Juvenile offenders are less mature and responsible, and more susceptible to outside pressures than adults, said LaBelle, who believes they are therefore less deserving of Michigan's harshest punishment -- life without parole.

LaBelle said she took on the case after interviewing kids about the treatment they receive when they enter adult prison.

"I had no idea you could do this to kids," she said. "Don't we as a society owe them a second look?"

O'Meara said he expects to issue an opinion within two or three weeks.

Published: Mon, May 2, 2011


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