Five years ago, teenagers Stafon Thompson and Brian Flowers were convicted in separate trials of first-degree murder in a gruesome double-slaying in south Minneapolis. Both were sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Now one local federal judge, Joan Ericksen, has declared that Flowers’ sentence must be reconsidered based on a new U.S. Supreme Court decision that changed the law on juveniles sentenced to life without parole.
A second local federal judge, Patrick Schiltz, has taken an opposite view. He ruled that the high court decision applies only to new cases, and Thompson should not have his sentence reconsidered.
The conflicting rulings put Minnesota squarely in the middle of an intensifying legal fight over mandatory sentences for juvenile offenders convicted of murder.
“It is representative of the confusion we are seeing across the country,” said Marsha Levick, chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center, a national organization based in Philadelphia.
Nine state Supreme Courts have ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder must be applied retroactively, potentially altering the fate of hundreds of prisoners.
Four state Supreme Courts, including Minnesota, said previous convictions should not be reconsidered.
The split over Thompson/Flowers has been appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Other federal appeals courts are weighing the issue, and the debate might ultimately land at the U.S. Supreme Court.
At stake are the sentences of an estimated 2,500 U.S. prisoners who were juveniles when they were sentenced to life without parole, including eight from Minnesota.
“My lawyers have advised me to remain pessimistic about the situation,” Flowers, now 23, said in a telephone interview from Minnesota’s Oak Park Heights prison. Thompson declined to be interviewed.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life sentences for juveniles without parole are unconstitutional. Trial judges must now consider other factors, including the youth’s maturity and role in the crime before deciding if life without parole is warranted.
But the court left open the question about whether convictions imposed before its ruling need to be reconsidered.
“I think that we have condemned so many children to die in prison it is troubling,” said Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama attorney who successfully argued the 2012 case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Stevenson, who spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis on Tuesday, said in an interview that laws that establish life sentences without parole were created for adult criminals who have no hope for change.
“But you can never say that about a child,” Stevenson said. “Every child will change biologically, physically, psychologically and to pretend they don’t change is not only not scientific it is also pretty abusive in my opinion.”
Thompson, then 17, and Flowers, 16, were convicted of murdering Katricia Daniels, 35, and her 10-year-old son, Robert Shepard, in their Kingfield neighborhood duplex in 2008.
Daniels was stabbed nearly 200 times while her son died face down on a bedroom floor, both jugular veins severed. There were marks on his throat indicating he had a TV set smashed against him. The motive was unclear, and Flowers declined to discuss details.
“I’m sorry that it happened,” he said. “I wish I could go back and change a couple of things. But I can’t go back. These people lost their lives … I could have changed a lot of things.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman does not want their sentences cut short. Of the eight juveniles in Minnesota who were sentenced to life without parole, he said five were prosecuted in Hennepin County, including Thompson and Flowers.
“I have reviewed every one of the [eight] cases, and all of them are the most horrific crimes,” Freeman said. “They are really, really, ugly … We don’t think any of those … should get anything other than life without parole.”
Perry Moriearty, an associate law professor at the University of Minnesota, who has joined attorney Bradford Colbert to represent Flowers, said the U.S. Supreme Court has already concluded that it is unconstitutional to execute juveniles, sentence them to life without parole for nonfatal crimes, and now, sentence them to life without parole under a mandatory statute.
“What these three cases together show is that the court has recognized that kids are different,” and should not be sentenced the same way as adults, she said. Moriearty said the high court had relied on scientific studies showing adolescent brains develop differently and are not fully developed until age 25.
“Adolescents are more susceptible to peer pressure, they are more impulsive,” she said. “ … They have less control and they cannot formulate intent to the same degree as an adult.”
If the courts get to review the Flowers and Thompson sentences, a likely issue will be Flowers’ role in the murders. Freeman insists Flowers played an active part in both killings, while Flowers’ attorneys say he did not.
In affirming Flowers’ conviction in 2010, state Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson, wrote, “there is much less evidence that Flowers participated in the acts of murdering Daniels and Shepard.”
Anderson concluded it was one of the most difficult cases they had faced. “Nevertheless we conclude there is sufficient evidence to support a conviction of aiding and abetting first degree murder,” he wrote.
The federal appeals decision could hinge on a technical and long debated argument. Freeman’s office contends that the Supreme Court ruling on life without parole is not retroactive because the decision does not change what constitutes a criminal behavior, nor does it change the maximum penalty for the crime. It only changes whether the judge has discretion to give something less than the maximum penalty and the procedure the judge must follow.
Stevenson, the Alabama civil rights attorney who has gained national attention for his new book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” questions why prosecutors “want to defend a sentence that the U.S. Supreme Court has said is cruel and unusual punishment.”
He said there is no harm in having a judge consider appropriate punishment. “Why is there this effort to shield some cases from scrutiny and reviewal?”
Freeman said that all murder convictions are reviewed by appeals courts.
“Citizens are paying millions of dollars for people who committed serious crimes, debating how long their sentence should be,” he said. “We can use that money for preschool, for day care, for better housing, for job opportunities.”
The appeals court will have to resolve another issue. Judge Ericksen rejected Freeman’s notice of appeal of her decision on Flowers because it was filed 41 days after her ruling, 11 days after what court rules allow. She wrote that the county attorneys did not give a satisfactory reason for the delay.
The Eighth Circuit is also considering the retroactivity issue of life without parole in another Minnesota case. LaMonte Rydell Martin was 17 when he and another man killed a 19-year-old man in north Minneapolis in an execution-style slaying in 2006.
His attorney argued at sentencing that Martin had an IQ of about 77, twice had been shot in the head, and that such a sentence was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. But the state Supreme Court ruled that it was not.
Martin appealed his sentence to the federal district court, and last year, Judge Susan Nelson rejected his claim, saying the 2012 Supreme Court decision on juveniles was not retroactive.