Eight Minnesota killers who were teenagers when they committed crimes that landed them in prison for life are now at the heart of a debate over whether the state should give them even a far-off chance at parole.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 declared that mandatory life sentences for juveniles without the possibility of parole violated the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The eight prisoners are men now. All fell under a state law that requires mandatory life sentences for some juveniles who are certified to stand trial as adults. Some have been in prison since 1996. Among their 10 victims: a 17-year-old girl, a little boy and a sheriff’s deputy.
Under Minnesota law, life sentences without parole are mandatory for some first-degree murder cases, such as premeditated murder, murder committed during a sexual assault, the killing of a police officer or life taken during a terrorist act. That mandate makes no exception for juveniles who are certified to stand trial as adults.
But in its ruling, the nation’s high court declared that states could not impose life sentences on juvenile offenders without also considering factors like the offender’s youth, why they committed the crime and their potential for rehabilitation.
Prosecutors and juvenile justice advocates alike agree that Minnesota laws should conform to the U.S. Supreme Court’s order by doing away with mandatory life sentences for juveniles.
The problem comes in what to do with the eight imprisoned before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.
The most recent of the crimes was committed in 2010, when then 16-year-old Mahdi Ali gunned down three men during a robbery at the Seward Market in south Minneapolis. The earliest: 1996, when 17-year-old Timothy Chambers stole a car and led police on a high-speed chase that ended when he slammed into a squad car, killing a Rice County sheriff’s deputy.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, is sponsoring a bill that would repeal mandatory life sentencing for juveniles, and would make it retroactive to include the eight now serving life without parole.
“I think it’s important that we treat everyone similarly situated the same way,” said Latz, whose bill would give all such offenders the chance to appeal for parole after serving 20 years. “They may have committed the exact same crime, just at a different decade, it seems to me that would be very unfair.”
But the Minnesota County Attorneys Association has advocated for a bill that would retain juvenile life without parole for a very narrow class of offenders, while giving others a chance at freedom after 30 years. The association’s bill would not be retroactive.
“Those eight were convicted by a jury and sentenced under a statute that existed at the time,” said John Kingrey, MCAA executive director. “We feel those very heinous crimes deserve life without parole. Now we have new guidance from the Supreme Court and going forward, there’s going to be different standards.”
Kingrey said that despite the differences with Latz, “This is an issue we’d like to resolve.”
No likely changes in 2014
Minnesota’s eight teen killers are a fraction of the number of juvenile lifers other states have.
The Illinois Supreme Court last week ruled that inmates serving life for juvenile crimes would receive new sentencing hearings, affecting 100 convicted killers. Courts in Iowa, Massachusetts and Texas have issued similar rulings.
Not in Minnesota. The Supreme Court here last year ruled that Chambers was not eligible for resentencing. The court is currently considering the case of Tony Roman Nose, who was 17 when he raped and killed a Woodbury teenager in her house in 2000. A Washington County judge resentenced Roman Nose to life with the possibility of release after 30 years following the ruling, but prosecutors appealed.
While the debate continues, chances are slim that any proposal will become law this year. Latz’s bill is moving through the Senate, but a similar bill by Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, appears to be in limbo. Mullery’s bill would allow juveniles serving life to apply for parole after 20 years if they committed the crime when they were 14 or 15. If they were 16 or 17, they could apply for parole after 25 years. The bill would be retroactive. It has yet to even get a hearing and may not before the 2014 Legislative session draws to a close in May.
Mullery said the issue of retroactivity is likely a sticking point, but said there’s also little sense of urgency to address the matter. Even though the state law has not been repealed, judges in Minnesota will sentence juveniles in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s orders, he said, and none of the incarcerated eight would be eligible for parole anytime soon.
Mullery said the bill may have a chance next year.
Perry Moriearty, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, is co-director of the Child Advocacy and Juvenile Justice Clinic, which represents Chambers and another, Brian Lee Flowers. Moriearty said that the Supreme Court’s decision has no bearing on what kind of legislation can be passed, though she understands the opposition to retroactively changing the law, particularly for the closure for crime victims’ families.
“What I would suggest, though, is that we now know that juvenile brains are not adult brains,” Moriearty said. “We know a lot more about the development of kids than when the majority of these eight people committed their crimes.”