Does convicted killer Tony Roman Nose deserve eventual release from prison for the brutal murder of a Woodbury woman? Or should he stay behind bars until he dies?
That was the question argued Tuesday before the Minnesota Supreme Court in a case ripe with implications for seven other Minnesota defendants who committed murder when they were younger than 18.
Roman Nose was 17 when he raped and killed a Woodbury teenager in her house in 2000. Because of the heinous nature of Jolene Stuedemann’s stabbing death, Roman Nose was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder and murder while committing criminal sexual conduct. He was sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole.
About a year ago, however, Washington County District Judge William Ekstrum resentenced Roman Nose to life in prison with the possibility of release after 30 years. The decision came under the auspices of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miller vs. Alabama, which said the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for children who commit murder.
The high court said judges should have discretion to decide whether life sentences for children should include parole. In the Roman Nose case, which was tried in Washington County, Roman Nose was granted a retroactive sentence because his crime was committed more than a decade before the 2012 Miller vs. Alabama ruling.
“Do we go back to everybody sitting in prison? That wasn’t made clear,” Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said Tuesday. “With Roman Nose, I don’t have any problem keeping him in prison for the rest of his life for what he did to that young lady.”
Orput’s office appealed Ekstrum’s resentencing on grounds that he didn’t allow a hearing to decide whether a reduced sentence was justified. The U.S. Supreme Court never intended Miller vs. Alabama to apply to cases already sentenced, Orput said, describing the Roman Nose murder as especially disturbing.
“I don’t want the state to lose sight that this is a horrendous crime,” Assistant Washington County Attorney Robin Wolpert said after she argued in front of seven Minnesota Supreme Court justices.
Wolpert dueled with Steven Russett, an assistant state public defender, over Roman Nose’s fate. Just what the justices decide — and when — could affect similar cases in Minnesota. The two attorneys’ arguments, rife with references to case law, were met with frequent questions from justices trying to grasp their role in sorting out the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
“You’re opening the door to a flood of other issues,” Wolpert said of the Minnesota court’s consideration of the Roman Nose case. “That’s what the court is struggling with, that children are different from adults.”
Russett asked the court to affirm Ekstrum’s resentencing, arguing that Roman Nose would endure “cruel and unusual punishment” if he had no hope for parole. “We know he was immature and suffered from poor judgment,” Russett said, detailing Roman Nose’s dysfunctional upbringing and fetal alcohol struggles.
The Roman Nose case is the second of its kind argued before the state Supreme Court. In May, the court held that another Minnesota youth who committed murder, 17-year-old Timothy Chambers, wasn’t eligible for resentencing under the Miller vs. Alabama ruling.
Chambers killed a sheriff’s deputy in a deliberate high-speed collision in Rice County in 1996.