Life without parole sentence unconstitutional for juveniles

Published: Aug. 18, 2017 at 9:29 AM CDT
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There are 12 state prison inmates in Texas serving life without parole sentences which the U.S. Supreme Court has said is unconstitutional, but not a single one of them has asked for a new sentence.

One of those inmates is housed at a prison unit in Gatesville.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a majority opinion by the court that said “under the Eighth Amendment's bar against cruel and unusual punishment, states may no longer sentence juveniles to life without parole.”

“We have 12 in custody now serving life without parole sentences who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes,” Jason Clark, public information director for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said in a telephone interview Thursday.

“As far as I know none of them has asked for a new sentence and it’s something they have to do,” Clark said.

As long ago as 2012 the high court ruled that a life without parole sentence handed to a person convicted of capital murder who was younger than 18-years-old when the crime was committed is unconstitutional and any inmate serving such a sentence is entitled to a new punishment hearing.

In 2016 a second ruling on the same issue made the 2012 opinion retroactive.

“The United States stands alone as the only nation that sentences juveniles to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18,” according to the Innocence Project.

There only are 12 such inmates in Texas but across the country there are 2,500, Josh Rovner, who writes for the Sentencing Project, said in a recent article.

“Following the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, states and the federal government are required to consider the unique circumstances of each juvenile defendant in determining an individualized sentence,” Rovner wrote.

“In 2012, the Court ruled that judges must consider the unique circumstances of each juvenile offender, banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for all juveniles; in 2016, this decision was made retroactive to those sentenced prior to 2012,” Rovner said.

Of the 12 qualifying inmates in Texas, 10 were sentenced after trials in Harris County, one in Dallas County and one in Bexar County.

The only female amongst the dozen, Ashley Ervin, is serving time at the Hilltop Unit, in Gatesville.

Walter “Skip” Reaves, a Waco attorney well skilled in the appeals process, said it unusual that none of the inmates has sought to have his case re-visited by the appeals court.

Reaves said the process would begin with a hearing in the trial court where the inmate was convicted, and where a judge would recommend to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that the sentence be vacated and another sentencing hearing be set.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice – Institutional Division has a prison prosecution unit that prosecutes crimes involving inmates and a part of that office also is designed to defend inmates in such prosecutions, but those defense lawyers are not appellate lawyers and would not file a re-hearing motion for an inmate.

“Typically an inmate has a lawyer and that’s who should file a re-hearing request, but if the inmate is indigent they can petition the state for an appointed lawyer,” Clark said.

Prosecutors in each county confirmed currently there are no cases pending in either McLennan, Bell or Coryell counties that could involve a capital murder defendant younger than 18.

The list of qualifying inmates in Texas includes Ervin, who was just barely older than 17 on May 26, 2006 when she drove a getaway car for two friends who shot and killed a Houston-area man at a carwash.

Jurors deliberated only three hours before returning their verdict in her sentence, which was imposed February 13, 2008.

Keithron Marquis Fields, who was 17 the time, was convicted in the same case and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole on the capital murder charge.

Christopher Crenshaw, who was 15 when he committed his crime, Cornelius Conway and Alan Michal Nickerson, both just a couple of months shy of their 18th birthdays, all were sentenced to life without parole after they were found guilty of the November 29, 2007 capital murder of an off duty Harris County deputy constable outside an apartment complex in Houston.

Walter Lee McCreary, V, was 15 when he walked into a Houston-area liquor store, demanded money from the clerk and then shot the victim several times before leaving him for dead.

He entered the Texas prison system in December, 2010.

Risaya Thompson was not quite 16 on December 18, 2005 when he and four others lured a man into an abandoned Houston house, beat him with bats and sticks, stuffed him into the trunk of a car and drove to a secluded spot where they set the car on fire with the victim still alive in the trunk.

Thompson has been in state custody since April 5, 2007.

Sixteen-year-old Chris Joshua Meadoux, on January 24, 2007 in Bexar County, murdered two of his friends “during a single criminal transaction” and tried to cover up the crime by burning the victim’s bodies in a house fire.

Richard Foster was convicted of capital murder after he, at only 17, and another gunman burst into a Houston apartment, shot two men and robbed them of drugs that were being stored there.

One of the victims later died, but the second identified both gunman at Foster’s trial in 2007.

Shortly after midnight on July 1, 2009, Derrick Godfrey was killed by a shot in the head with a shotgun in an area in Houston known as Cloverleaf.

Ramiro Martinez, who was 17 when he and two other juveniles shot and killed Godfrey, was convicted of the capital murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Eric Johnson, who was 17 when he and three other friends robbed a Shell convenience store in Pleasant Grove, was convicted in a Dallas County court in 2005 of killing the store clerk and was sentenced to life without parole.

He also was convicted of one count of robbery, one count of aggravated robbery and three counts of burglary of a habitation.

Finally Joshua Ray Juarez was convicted in December 2007 of a capital murder that happened almost exactly a year before his Harris County trial.

He was just 17 when he and two neighbors got into an argument about his pit bull puppy and he was so enraged he went next door and stabbed both women to death.

The District of Columbia and 18 states have no prisoners serving life without parole who committed their cries as juveniles, in some cases because state law prohibited such a sentence and in other cases because there were no juvenile offenders convicted of a capital crime.

Of the remainder, 30 states would allow such a sentence and just four states, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Louisiana and California, account for more than half of the total number of juveniles sentenced to life without parole.

Emily Bazelon, a writer for the New York Times, in a recent article she wrote for The Slate, said the court’s decision is a big deal.

‘The court has never before prohibited a particular kind of sentence in modern use, other than the death penalty.

Bazelon wrote: “Life Without Parole sentences ‘share some characteristics’ with death sentences, (Kennedy) says.

“And ‘when compared to an adult murderer, a juvenile offender who did not kill or intend to kill has twice diminished moral culpability.’”