Convicted killers sentenced to life in prison as teenagers could soon walk out of prison as free men and women thanks to two Supreme Court rulings, Oakland County, Mich., Sheriff Michael Bouchard warned.
“These are not innocent children who were joyriding or doing something minor,” Bouchard said. “You read these cases, and you are stunned at the depravity and violence.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences without parole were unconstitutional and presented “too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.”
Then the Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery vs. Louisiana this year that its 2012 decision was retroactive. Prisoners sentenced as juveniles could be released as adults.
Robert Colon is one of those prisoners. He was sentenced to life in 1990, at the age of 16, on a drug charge. His sister, Anita, told WBUR-FM Robert took $500 from some drug dealers to serve as a lookout on a drug deal in Philadelphia.
The drug deal went bad – deadly, in fact. A woman was killed. Under Pennsylvania law, Robert got life.
Prisoners like Colon, who had no chance of ever leaving prison after committing what seem in retrospect to be relatively minor felonies, are often held up as examples of the immorality of sentencing kids to life.
But Sheriff Bouchard said for every Robert Colon there is a Jonathan Belton, who was 16 when he shot and killed a police officer in Oak Park, Mich., and took a selfie of himself in a victory pose with the officer’s smartphone before escaping.
Or how about Michael Kirksey? He was 16 when he shot a woman to death after committing two robberies a couple of days before, shooting one of his victims in the chest. Should Kirksey be set free?
Michael Kvam is another prisoner who is eligible for resentencing and possibly parole in Oakland County, Mich.. Bouchard said Kvam was 17 when he broke into a home, then sexually assaulted, stabbed and murdered Joann Bray, 27, Wendy Lovell, 15, and Chastity Bray, 9.
Kvam stabbed the 9-year-old 27 times while she pleaded for her life.
“I looked at a sample of these individuals, and they are Hannibal Lecters who committed very heinous crimes — often, multiple murders — and then they’ve continued to display very assaultive behavior in prison,” Bouchard told reporters July 27.
Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter is a fictional serial killer, who was portrayed by actor Anthony Hopkins in the movie adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs.
Oakland County prosecutor Jessica Cooper filed paperwork expressing “our serious concern” with 44 of the 49 Oakland County “juvy lifer” cases that might qualify inmates for parole.
The Michigan State Court of Appeals ruled in July that a judge, not a jury, would decide on a case-by-case basis whether teenagers doing life should be released.
Wayne County, Mich., prosecutor Kym Worthy said her office was looking at resentencing many of the county’s 145 juvenile lifers.
“We spent a significant amount of time analyzing each case. Although we had a short amount of time under the statute, we gave a considered and thoughtful review,” Worthy said in a statement.
“We combed trial transcripts, prison records, and numerous other documents,” she added. “We sought input from victims’ families when they could be located during this short window of time.”
If these prisoners are released, what then?
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that of the 507 lifers in Pennsylvania, 95 are on the prisons’ active mental-health roster. At least half of them have a history of mental-health problems. There are 21 sex offenders among them.
How are these men going to fit back into society?
“We’re trying to figure out the best path that we can put someone who was a child when they came to us,” Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. “We’re trying to figure out what re-entry looks like if we want them to be successful.”
More than 300 in Pennsylvania have been locked up longer than 20 years. The oldest, Joseph Ligon, is 78 and has been incarcerated since 1956, making him the world’s longest serving juvenile lifer.
Not only has society changed drastically since many of these men were put behind bars, none of them had a chance to grow up on the outside, explained Steve Gotzler, who runs a mentoring program for the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
“A lot of these guys never had a successful girlfriend before they went to prison,” Gotzler said. “All the normal developmental things didn’t get a chance to happen.”
Bouchard stressed that his fellow county sheriffs are very concerned about what will happen if these men are set free.
“I am speaking out because this is happening,” Bouchard said, “and the public isn’t hearing about it.”