Prosecutors across Michigan are fighting to uphold sentences for most of the 350-plus prison inmates now serving mandatory life terms for crimes they committed as juveniles.
Their stance is in apparent defiance of a U.S. Supreme Court directive this year that courts across the nation are supposed to reduce life sentences for young offenders except in only “rare” cases.
According to data, which Bridge obtained from a network of Michigan lawyers, at least nine county prosecutors are asking judges to uphold life sentences for every so-called “juvenile lifer” convicted in their courts. They argue that these inmates, including some who have behind bars for decades, can never be safely returned to society.
“I think what the prosecutors are doing is appalling,” said Ann Arbor lawyer Deborah LaBelle, a prisoner rights advocate who is organizing free legal representation for about 100 juvenile lifers.
“The Supreme Court says the vast majority have to have the chance at being paroled,” LaBelle said. “You can't just lock them up and throw away the key for things they did as a child.”
Among the most resistant to the Supreme Court’s ruling: Saginaw County Prosecutor John McColgan Jr., who wants to uphold 21 of 21 sentences in which life terms were given to juvenile defendants. It's nine of nine in Kalamazoo County. And seven of seven in Muskegon County.
Meanwhile, Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper has asked judges to uphold mandatory life sentences for 44 of 49 inmates who committed crimes as juveniles. In Genesee County, Prosecutor David Leyton is asking the same in 23 of 27 cases.
More broadly, four large Michigan counties – Genesee, Oakland, Saginaw and Wayne – account for 150 of the 218 cases for which prosecutors are seeking to uphold life without parole.
In Wayne County, which includes Detroit, Prosecutor Kym Worthy is seeking life without parole in 61 of 153 cases – hardly rare at 40 percent, but lower than Oakland County's request to uphold 90 percent of juvenile life sentences.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard put an incendiary exclamation mark on the position of prosecutors when he held a press conference in July in which he compared juvenile lifers to a famous fictional serial killer.
“I looked at a sample of these individuals and they are Hannibal Lecters who committed very heinous murders – often, multiple murders – and then they've continued to display very assaultive behavior in prison and show no remorse,” Bouchard said.
The meaning of ‘rare’
Overall, according to the data, prosecutors are seeking to uphold life-without-parole sentences for 218 of the 363 men and women in state prisons for crimes committed as minors. Most were convicted of first-degree murder or of abetting first-degree murder. Some were as young as 14. The oldest is now 71.
The effort to keep juvenile lifers permanently behind bars faces pushback from legal advocates, as well as some federal prosecutors.
Critics accuse county prosecutors of ignoring not only the clear instructions of the nation’s highest court, but overwhelming scientific research showing that adolescent brains are at once more impulsive than those of adults and yet more capable of change and growth as they mature, even among teens involved in brutal crimes.
Michigan's tough juvenile sentencing laws – allowing mandatory life without parole for those as young as 14, and for decades treating 17-year-olds as adults – have made the state a leader in imprisoning juveniles for life, ranking second only to Pennsylvania.
For years now, the U.S. Supreme Court, relying heavily on developments in brain science, has chipped away at the notion that young criminals are irredeemable.
In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the justices concluded that juveniles should no longer face the possibility of mandatory life terms. Then, this past January, the court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller decision should be applied retroactively to those already in prison. The 6-3 decision required local courts to reconsider a shorter sentence for roughly 2,000 juvenile lifers across the country.
The ruling reignited a familiar and contentious debate over crime, punishment – and the redemptive possibilities for young offenders who commit horrible crimes.
Mandatory life sentences, the court said, should be reserved for those “rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption,” who exhibit “such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.”
Prosecutors in Michigan were given a July deadline to name juvenile lifers within their jurisdictions who they contend remain too dangerous to ever walk free. Those named will face an eventual mini-trial in which prosecutors have to prove they were among the irretrievably depraved. The facts of the original crime, statements by friends or relatives of the victim and each inmate's background and behavior in prison are to be weighed.
For those lifers not targeted by prosecutors, legislation signed by Gov. Snyder in 2014 spells out a default minimum sentence of 25 years in prison to maximum of 60 years.
The adolescent mind
Juvenile advocates insist that life without parole is too harsh for crimes committed by minors, whose brains are less developed, more impulsive and far more susceptible to peer pressure. They say life terms also ignore young people’s greater capacity for rehabilitation. After years in prison, advocates say, many of these younger inmates display rehabilitative qualities that at least merit discussion about their ability to rejoin society.
They point to cases like that of Barbara Hernandez, imprisoned since 1991 for the murder of James Cotaling in Pontiac. Cotaling was stabbed to death by Hernandez’s then-boyfriend and apparent pimp, Jim Hyde. There was dispute at trial as to whether Hernandez - who was 16 at the time of the crime - physically aided Hyde in the attack.
Her champions argue that since entering prison she has overcome a childhood marked by sexual abuse and parental neglect and an abusive relationship with Hyde. Housed at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility, she has become a leader and mentor to other women who suffered similar trauma. She is ready, at age 42, they say, to safely rejoin society.
On the other side, victim rights' advocates and prosecutors insist violent crime must be severely punished – regardless of age.
In an interview with Bridge, Oakland County prosecutor Cooper called the 44 cases that she challenged for parole some of the most “heinous” crimes she has seen. She said her decision on those cases was reached only after months of exhaustive review.
“We are talking about victims who were stabbed, drowned, bludgeoned and decapitated,” Cooper said. “We are not talking about people who took Dad's car and drove over somebody's lawn.
“Many of these crimes were totally random. They walked up to a car and decided to shoot in it. On and on and on and on. We are really talking about awful cases.”
She pointed to the crime committed by Thomas McCloud Jr., convicted in 2009 on two counts of first-degree murder in the 2008 fatal beating of two elderly Oakland County homeless men. McCloud was 14 at the time, convicted with another 14-year-old. Cooper is seeking to keep him in prison for life.
According to his attorney, McCloud rejected plea deals from prosecutors on three separate occasions on his family’s advice. Under a proposed plea to second-degree murder, attorney Howard Arnkoff said, the teen would have been eligible for parole – and perhaps out of prison – by age 30.
Cooper also cited the 1989 murders of General Motors executive Glenn Tarr and his wife, Wanda, of Rochester Hills. The killers, Bruce Christopher Michaels, and his accomplice, Joseph Andrew Passeno, were 16 and 17, respectively; they received life without parole for the couple’s kidnapping, robbery and fatal shooting.
Rethinking mandatory terms
Lansing has wrestled in recent years with the state’s get-tough approach toward younger offenders. For decades, Michigan charged all 17-year-olds as adults, a practice that would change with legislation that cleared the state House in May, but remains mired in the Senate. Michigan is one of just eight states in which 17-year-olds are still automatically treated as adults by the criminal justice system. That law alone accounts for 207 of the juvenile lifers currently in state prisons.
In 1996, then-Gov. John Engler signed legislation that allowed prosecutors to try teens as young as 14 in adult court for certain crimes, with life without parole for first-degree murder.
Only recently have voices across the political spectrum begun to rethink the mandatory sentencing laws of 1980s and ‘90s, particularly for crimes committed by juveniles. Those voices now include a group of current and former federal prosecutors, who have publicly rebuked state prosecutors for, in their view, defying the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Michael Dettmer, former U.S. Attorney for Michigan's Western District, joined with another former Western District U.S. Attorney, James Brady, and Richard Rossman, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, recently wrote an op-ed condemning the move by state prosecutors to challenge lesser sentences for juvenile lifers.
“As former U.S. Attorneys,” they wrote, “we would have expected Michigan prosecutors to understand Montgomery’s central tenet that children are uniquely capable of growth and maturation and must be able to demonstrate their rehabilitation.
“Instead, too many prosecutors are focusing on the crime committed by a troubled adolescent without exercising the judgment to recognize whether the adult before them today has rehabilitated himself.”
Dettmer said he considers state prosecutors’ push to keep so many in prison for life “a slap in the face” of the court's instruction on rehabilitation.
Former Michigan Gov. William Milliken, a Republican, has also added his criticism of the juvenile lifer law.
But county prosecutors have a powerful ally in Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Schuette has vigorously fought reconsideration of juvenile life sentences, filing a friend of the court brief in 2015 in the Montgomery case on behalf of Michigan and 15 other states opposing any retroactive look at those sentences.
Asked to comment on the high rate of challenges by county prosecutors, a Schuette spokesperson said, “In general, Attorney General Schuette supports local prosecutors and their decisions.”
The next move is in the hands of local judges.