It began as a favor to a dying friend.
But Deborah LaBelle’s decision in 1985 to take over a federal lawsuit at the request of attorney Judith Magid has since evolved into a 28-year legal crusade that has improved the quality of life of Michigan prison inmates, cost the state $150 million for violating their rights and made LaBelle one of the nation’s top prisoner advocates.
“I thought I’d be filing one or two legal briefs and making a couple of court appearances to wrap up the case,” LaBelle said during a recent interview in her Ann Arbor law office, which she often shares with Koda, her son’s large chocolate poodle.
She said Magid, who spent eight years on the case before developing terminal cancer, had already persuaded a judge to order the Michigan Department of Corrections to provide female prisoners with the same educational and vocational opportunities as male inmates. But it took LaBelle 11 more years to get the job done.
“They fought us every step of the way,” LaBelle said.
Advocate for human rights
Since then, LaBelle has sued the state over other prison issues, often with the help of other lawyers. Those lawsuits forced Michigan to become the first state to prohibit male corrections officers from guarding female prisoners and allowed HIV-positive inmates to be placed in prison camps and halfway houses and, eventually, paroled.
In 2009, the state agreed to pay $100 million to hundreds of LaBelle’s female clients who said they were sexually assaulted by male guards. The settlement was in addition to $40 million that two juries already had awarded to several of her clients.
LaBelle scored again in January when a federal judge ordered the state to provide parole hearings for more than 350 juvenile lifers — prisoners who were sentenced as children to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. LaBelle was lead counsel on the case.
“Deb is an extraordinary lawyer, human being and human rights advocate,” said Alison Parker, head of U.S. programs for Human Rights Watch. “She was the first person in the country to systematically work on behalf of youth offenders sentenced to life without parole. It was her vision and dedication that first put the issue on the map.”
LaBelle has won dozens of awards for her work, argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and testified before Congress, the United Nations and other national and international forums about the humane treatment of prisoners and children. Students from top U.S. colleges regularly trek to Ann Arbor to intern for LaBelle, whose work is subsidized by several charitable organizations.
Focus turns to juvenile lifers
LaBelle’s crusade for juvenile lifers began around 2003 when she discovered that prisoners as young as 14 were serving mandatory life sentences for murders committed when they were juveniles.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said LaBelle, who had never practiced criminal law.
With the help of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the ACLU of Michigan, LaBelle learned that Michigan had 358 juvenile lifers — second only to Pennsylvania’s 474.
In November 2010, the ACLU — with LaBelle as lead attorney — sued the state to overturn Michigan’s juvenile lifer law.
She got a boost in June 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down automatic mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, saying the penalty violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
That November, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled the decision only applied to new offenders.
But U.S. District Court John O’Meara ruled in LaBelle’s case in January 2013 that the federal Supreme Court decision applies to existing prisoners -- and that they are entitled to parole hearings.
The state is challenging the decision.
Though prosecutors and victims’ families object to such hearings, LaBelle and the ACLU say many juvenile lifers were only peripherally involved in the slayings, influenced by adults, defended by marginal lawyers or got stiffer sentences than the actual killers who pleaded guilty to lesser charges to get a shorter sentence and the possibility of parole. They said many of the juveniles have matured and rehabilitated themselves in prison and deserve a chance at parole.
They also say the United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to mandatory life in prison.
“We don’t have worse children than other countries, but we treat them as though they are,” LaBelle said.
Understandably, prisoners adore LaBelle.
“She’s a phenomenal woman,” said Henry Hill Jr., 49, a plaintiff in the juvenile lifer suit.
He received mandatory life for his role in the fatal 1980 shooting of 18-year-old Anthony Thomas during a fight in a Saginaw park in 1980.
Though authorities said Hill helped his 18-year-old cousin plan the slaying and fired a handgun into the air moments before it occurred, he was running away when his cousin shot Thomas. The cousin also is serving mandatory life.
“I’ve tried to make the best of my time in prison,” Hill said, adding that LaBelle is his only hope for eventual freedom.
LaBelle also has the support and respect of former adversaries.
“She’s tenacious, very smart and does her homework,” says Patricia Caruso, Michigan corrections director from 2003-2010.
Though LaBelle relentlessly grilled Caruso in a series of depositions in the sex assault lawsuit, Caruso later agreed to testify for LaBelle in the juvenile lifer lawsuit.
“I don’t think anyone should receive a get out of jail free card, but those sentences should be reviewed,” Caruso said. “During my years in the system, I often questioned how juveniles could get life sentences without parole.”
Not all opponents are so civil.
LaBelle said she received several death threats during the sex assault lawsuit, her car was vandalized during prison visits and guards groped her and other female lawyers during searches at prison entrances. The lawyers got a court order to stop the guards from touching them, LaBelle said. (Editor’s note: The Michigan Department of Corrections and Michigan Attorney General's Office declined to comment for this story.)
LaBelle is soft-spoken, low key and modest about her success, but marvels at how things turned out for a Downriver girl who embarked on adulthood without a career plan.
From Downriver to the Ivy League
She grew up in Lincoln Park, the daughter of a homemaker and a Chrysler pipefitter. She graduated with honors from Lincoln Park High School in 1972 and studied philosophy at Oakland University and Barnard College in New York City, supporting herself on scholarships and part-time jobs.
After getting her bachelor’s degree in 1974, LaBelle pursued a Ph.D in philosophy at Columbia University, but dropped out to seek a law degree at the University of Michigan and Wayne State. She also clerked at Goodman, Eden, Millender & Bedrosian, the nation’s first racially integrated law firm and champion of liberal causes.
“It was an amazing place to work,” LaBelle said. “I learned what it meant to be a lawyer and how the law could be used to achieve economic and social justice.”
After getting her law degree in 1979, LaBelle represented migrant workers in legal scrapes in upstate New York and returned to Detroit in 1981 to help the Goodman firm and the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sue the FBI for failing to prevent Ku Klux Klan members from beating civil rights activists in Alabama in 1961 after being tipped off by informants.
LaBelle also became friends with Judith Magid and reluctantly agreed to handle Magid’s lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections. LaBelle said Magid was adamant she take it on, even though LaBelle knew nothing about prisons.
“You can agree to handle it or I’ll leave it to you in my will,” LaBelle said Magid told her.
The lawsuit put LaBelle’s career on track. The more she learned about prisons, the more she became concerned about how inmates were being treated.
To get away from the high-stakes stress of prisoner rights cases, LaBelle enjoys canoeing, kayaking and fishing. She also plays the piano.
“I work off the basis that no matter what a person’s status is, they are entitled to basic human rights,” LaBelle said. “It is irrelevant to me what they did, only how they are being treated.”
David Ashenfelter served as a reporter for many years for both the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press and won Pulitzer Prizes at both papers. He’s a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.