For 7 killers, court ruling raises hope of release

  • Article by: PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2012 - 5:38 AM

They await the impact of a Supreme Court decision on juvenile life sentences.

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Nimo Warfa, sister of Mohamed Warfa, held a photo of her brother's family and spoke after the sentencing of her brother's killer Mahdi Ali, Monday, October 31, 2011.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Seven men in Minnesota prisons woke up Tuesday wondering if they have a new, long shot at freedom in the wake of a historic decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the law under which they were sentenced.

Their common traits: All were under 18 when they decided to kill. All were told they would remain in prison right up to their last breaths.

Some of their crimes were so horrific that homicide cops were left speechless and said it was up to the theologians to explain their actions. Others were gang-related murders stemming from petty grudges. One was described as an outright "assassination." All seven stood in front of judges who ruled that, even though juveniles, they deserved mandatory life without the possibility of parole.

Today, they are among 2,500 men and women across the country who might have a chance at freedom because the court said that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Legal scholars say it will take some time for sentencing experts and Minnesota judges to interpret exactly how the decision affects this small group of Minnesota offenders, but that none will go free any time soon.

"The Supreme Court did not say that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole,'' said William Mitchell School of Law Prof. Bradford Colbert. "It said that the sentence could not be mandatory -- that the court must have the discretion to sentence a juvenile to something other than life without the possibility of parole."

The first issue facing Minnesota is whether the ruling applies retroactively, said Colbert, who directs the Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners (LAMP) project.

"One thing is certain: They will not be released any time soon,'' he added. "My best guess is that the courts, the Legislature or some combination thereof will come up with a length of time that the juvenile has to serve before they are eligible for parole -- the length of time is now a completely open question."

Colbert pointed out another nuance: The seven offenders here received mandatory sentences because they were certified to stand trial as adults; but even so, they will be considered juveniles for the purposes of interpreting the court's ruling.

One fact is clear: The seven represent some chilling crimes.

• Mahdi Hassan Ali was 17 when he shot and killed three men at a convenience store in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood in January 2010. Ali was ruled eligible for parole after 30 years for two of the killings, but had to serve a mandatory sentence of life without parole for the premeditated killing of the third man. He is currently at the prison in Oak Park Heights. At the time of his sentencing, a sister of one of the victims said, "Any individual who kills three innocent men in one minute should be able to handle the consequences they are presented with." During the trial, Hennepin County District Judge Pete Cahill rejected motions by Ali's attorney challenging the constitutionality of sentencing a juvenile to life without possible release.

• Brian Flowers was convicted in a horrific 2008 double-murder in Minneapolis: A woman was stabbed more than 100 times and her 10-year-old son, a witness to his mother's death, was killed by a television smashed over his head. Flowers was 16 and his accomplice was 17. Following their arrests, Minneapolis Police Lt. Amelia Huffman, then-head of homicide, said, "Frankly, I think it's a question for the theologians, because I don't think there are any explanations that could account for this kind of brutality.'' Flowers is in Oak Park Heights.

• Lamonte Rydell Martin was 17 when he and a 19-year-old man "assassinated" a man who begged for his life in a north Minneapolis alley in May 2006. Christopher Lynch, 19, was shot about a dozen times in the gang-related killing that eventually landed before the Minnesota Supreme Court. There, divided justices ruled in 2009 that juveniles could be sentenced to life without parole without violating the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Christopher Dietzen, writing for the majority, cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 opinion that "when a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the state can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties.'' Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said at the time: "If there were ever a case in which a 17-year-old juvenile deserved to go to prison for life without the possibility of parole, this is it." Martin is in Oak Park Heights.

• In a Minneapolis gang-related killing, 17-year-old Prentis Cordell Jackson was found guilty in November 2006 of the premeditated murder of 15-year-old Michael "Tony" Bluntson, who was shot in the face while rushing home after telling a friend he'd been threatened by members of the Emerson Murder Boys gang. Jackson is in Oak Park Heights.

• Jeffrey Charles Pendleon Jr. was 15 when he and four accomplices kidnapped, stabbed and beat Robert Berry Jr. to death in Redwood County. The September 2004 killing stemmed from an argument at a party filled with heavy drinking and marijuana smoking. Berry was beaten unconscious, then driven to the Minnesota River, where he was stabbed at least 15 times. Pendleton is being held in an undisclosed location.

• Tony Allen Roman Nose, then 17, sexually assaulted and stabbed a 17-year-old woman to death with a screwdriver in July 2000 in Washington County. He then went to the residence of the girl's boyfriend and watched television with him, according to court documents. He is in Oak Park Heights.

• In 1996, Timothy Patrick Chambers stole a car at a mall in Prior Lake, led police on a 35-mile chase through three counties at speeds up to 115 miles per hour, then intentionally slammed his car into the unmarked squad car of Deputy John Liebenstein, killing him. An eight-time felon who testified against Chambers told jurors that, while they shared a cell, Chambers described how he made eye contact with Liebenstein as he bore down on the deputy. He told jurors that Chambers said that "if the cop in the parked car wanted to be a hero, he would die a hero."

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745

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