After 2016 ruling, battles over juvenile lifer cases persist
Locked up for life at 15, Norman Brown remains defined by the crime that put him behind bars.
Twenty-seven years ago, Brown joined a neighbor more than twice his age to rob a jewelry shop in Chesterfield, Missouri, and the man shot the owner to death. The shooter was executed. But state officials, bound by a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, pledged to give Brown an opportunity to get out – then rejected parole in a process a federal judge ruled recently must be overhauled.
Three years after the Supreme Court gave inmates like Brown a chance at freedom, the justice system is gaining speed in revisiting scores of cases. About 400 offenders originally sentenced to life without parole as juveniles have been released nationwide, and hundreds of others have been resentenced to shorter terms or made eligible for release by law.
But most remain behind bars as prosecutors and judges wrestle with difficult cases. Tensions have mounted and lawsuits have been filed in states like Missouri, while in 21 others, life-without-parole sentences are prohibited for those 17 and younger. About a third of those bans have been approved since 2016, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
"The national trend is certainly one where states are moving away from these sentences, whether by legislation or through the courts," said Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the group. But "there are still some outliers that in many ways are refusing to comply with the court's mandate."
In Missouri, lawmakers decided the more than 100 inmates serving life for adolescent crimes would get a parole hearing after 25 years. But the state is in court because the parole board has denied release in 85 percent of cases it has heard and has yet to free anyone.
Parole hearings have been brief and focused on inmates' crimes, with little, if any, attention on the circumstances preceding them or what offenders have done to rehabilitate themselves, a lawsuit filed by the MacArthur Justice Center alleges.
The board's actions violate the constitutional requirement that inmates be provided a "realistic opportunity for release," a federal judge determined in October, ordering changes. Missouri's corrections agency and attorney general's office declined comment.
After Brown's hearing in May 2017, the board cited his crime in denying parole. The state has since argued he is not yet eligible because he received consecutive sentences. Brown, now 42, said he hopes the board will eventually recognize his remorse, as well as his thousands of hours in restorative justice programs and work as a prison hospice caretaker and training rescue dogs.
In a telephone interview from Potosi Correctional Center, Brown recounted what he did that night in 1991.
"It's shameful. ... Because I'm an adult now, I know what it is to love your family," he said. "I can definitely see where (opposition to release) comes from, and I think it comes from a place of pain."
Florence Honickman's husband, Stephen, was killed by Brown's companion, and she vividly recalls the teen snatching a pendant off her neck as she lay bleeding from bullet wounds. She lives in Florida but returned to Missouri to oppose Brown's parole.
"My family was turned upside down and inside out," she said in an interview. "Do you really know deep down that this man – he's a man now, not a child – has he really, really changed?"
The high court's 2016 decision, one of four in recent years focused on the punishment of juveniles, hinged partly on research showing the brains of adolescents are slow to develop, making teen offenders likelier to act recklessly but capable of rehabilitation. The court said they must not be punished with the same severity and finality as adults, and that a life-without-parole sentence should be reserved for those inmates deemed beyond rehabilitation.
At the time, more than 2,000 inmates were serving mandatory life-without-parole sentences, most for murder convictions. And most cases were clustered in a few states.
In Pennsylvania, 399 of more than 500 juvenile lifers have been resentenced and 163 have been released, according to the Department of Corrections. Bradley Bridge, of the Defenders Association of Philadelphia, said the last of that city's 325 lifers could be resentenced this spring. Judges have recently rejected some negotiated sentences as too light. The last of their deliberations are complicated by the fact that many still awaiting resentencing have served less time and have less of a prison record to assess, or they have mental illnesses or a history of prison violations.
"The cases we have remaining are probably the toughest ones," Bridge said.
In Louisiana, after years of resistance by courts and prosecutors, the state is reconsidering the sentences of roughly 300 offenders. Through December, 45 had come before a parole committee, with 37 approved for release and 31 of those now out, according to the Board of Pardons and Parole.
Ivy Mathis was released in December after serving 26 years for killing a man during a home robbery. Mathis said that in prison she outgrew the rebelliousness of her teen years, worked in hospice care and got culinary training. She now works as a cook in two restaurants.
"I'm just thanking God, and I made up my mind, I will never return to prison. ... I'm not taking this second chance for granted," she said.
Henry Montgomery, whose case was at the center of the Supreme Court's 2016 ruling, has not been so lucky. Montgomery, 72, was denied parole last year. He was 16 when he killed a police officer who caught him skipping school. Montgomery, who worked in a prison silk screening shop and founded a boxing association for inmates, will be eligible for another hearing in February 2020.
"He's stoic," said Keith Nordyke, a lawyer with the Louisiana Parole Project. "You know one of the things that prison teaches you – 54 years of prison – is patience."
Louisiana prosecutors are seeking new life sentences for 80 other inmates; the state recently approved $1.3 million for inmates' defense.
In Michigan, where a case before the state Supreme Court delayed reconsideration of many cases, more than 140 inmates have been resentenced, and about half of them have been freed. But prosecutors are pursuing new life-without-parole sentences for about 200 others.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker has sought no-parole terms in about half of his 24 cases, and judges so far have agreed for four inmates – including Damon Jackson, 39, convicted in the death of his infant son. The boy was shaken, sexually abused and left blind and deaf before dying 2½ years later.