There is some question on the reach of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office says it may only apply going forward, and not to the 366 juvenile lifers currently serving in Michigan prisons.
But leaders in the State Appellate Defender Office, which represents some of the juvenile lifers, disagree.
“You have to wonder why even bother if you’re not going to apply it to the hundreds of people who were affected nationwide by these unconstitutional laws,” says Dawn Van Hoek, who directs the office. She says every juvenile sentenced to life without parole should get a new hearing. She also says perhaps a third of the juvenile lifers have a strong case to make for some kind of leniency.
“The juvenile was a getaway driver and was less culpable, came from horrible circumstances,” she gives examples. “It’s not going to be everybody, obviously. There are some really, really bad cases.”
A state House committee held a hearing today Tuesday on what Michigan needs to do to comply with the ruling. Authorities say the state needs to track down felons convicted as juveniles who might be eligible for re-sentencing – as well as the victims in those cases. Michigan has victims’ rights laws that require courts to give victims a chance to make statements at sentencing hearings.
Jody Robinson’s brother was murdered 22 years ago. One of the killers was 16 years old.
“We don’t want to have to re-live this nightmare,” she says. “We didn’t ask for this relationship with the offender. It was forced upon us and when can we break that tie? When can we say, OK, you’re out of my life.
“I want to know when my nightmare can end? When can I get some kind of … judicial closure.”