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Pivotal parole decision in teen girl's death

  • Article by: AMY FORLITI
  • Associated Press
  • February 15, 2014 - 2:40 PM

MINNEAPOLIS — Tony Roman Nose was two months shy of his 18th birthday when prosecutors say he raped and killed a teenage girl, stabbing her 29 times with a screwdriver. He was convicted in 2001 and received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without release, and the victim's family believed he'd never be free to hurt anyone else.

But that changed last year when a Washington County judge decided to retroactively apply a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down mandatory life without parole for juveniles. The judge resentenced Roman Nose to life with the possibility of release, giving him a chance for freedom in 17 years. The state Supreme Court is reviewing the case, and its decision could affect seven other men in state custody for life with no parole for murders they were convicted of committing when they were teens.

"There are certain people ... that for whatever reason they are broken and can't be fixed. I believe he's one of those," Jim Stuedemann said of Roman Nose, who was convicted of killing Stuedemann's daughter, Jolene. "Just the possibility that he can (seek parole) is unnerving. ... Now my other surviving daughter has to worry about him getting out and coming after her, my wife doesn't feel safe. ... It keeps opening up all these wounds again."

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole for juveniles was cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. The court didn't rule out such sentences for teens altogether — only the mandatory aspect. A judge could still issue a no-parole sentence for a teenager, but must take into account "the mitigating qualities of youth," such as a failure to understand the ramifications of their actions.

The U.S. Supreme Court didn't say whether its decision was retroactive, leaving the 28 states with mandatory no-parole life sentences to grapple with the issue. About 2,100 people nationwide are currently serving such sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles.

The states also had to ponder what to do with new cases, since current sentencing laws were invalidated for juveniles and judges were left with no guidelines for sentencing teens convicted of the most heinous crimes.

So far, seven state Supreme Courts have ruled on the issue of retroactivity. Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi and Nebraska found the federal ruling retroactive; Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Minnesota ruled it isn't.

The issue is pending in five other states, and federal courts have also been split, said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.

Roman Nose was resentenced before the Minnesota Supreme Court denied retroactivity. The lower-court judge also changed the sentence without a hearing, one of a few reasons prosecutors appealed.

"We can't let him out," Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said. "He's demonstrated that he is such a significant threat to public safety that we just don't think we can let him out of prison."

Roman Nose's attorney did not return messages seeking comment, but he argued in court papers that the district court decision was proper and should be upheld.

Perry Moriearty, associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law and co-director at the Child Advocacy and Juvenile Justice Clinic, said the Supreme Court could use the Roman Nose case to rethink its stance on retroactivity and issue a ruling that could affect all the Minnesota cases. Or the justices could handle it narrowly, applying it only to Roman Nose.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's office prosecuted five of the state's other seven juveniles currently serving life without parole. They include Mahdi Hassan Ali, who was convicted of gunning down three people in a Somali market, and Brian Lee Flowers and Stafon Thompson, who were convicted in the killings of a mother and son — the mother was stabbed more than 100 times and her 10-year-old son's head was smashed with a television set.

Freeman said in such cases, life without parole is probably warranted. But he said his office is weighing how to handle juveniles going forward, and he wasn't sure they would seek life without parole in the future.

"A very long sentence satisfies society's appropriate desire to have people who commit these heinous crimes to pay a big price, but we also think ... as we learn and understand more about juveniles, that the endless sentence isn't necessarily the proper or just sentence," he said. "Our job is not just to put people in prison, it's to do the right thing and do the just thing."

With mandatory life-without-parole sentences no longer an option for juveniles, judges are uncertain how to handle sentencing a teen for first-degree murder. Several legislatures around the country have already dealt with the issue, and at least two bills are expected in Minnesota this session.

John Stuart, the state's chief public defender, said Minnesota should abolish life without parole for juveniles altogether. He supports a bill proposed by the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee that would do that, and allow a person who has committed a serious crime as a juvenile to apply for parole after serving 20 years. The bill would also make the federal ruling retroactive.

"If we developed a new law based on a better understanding of teenagers, we ought to apply it to people who used to be teenagers who committed their crime," he said.

John Kingrey, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said prosecutors strongly oppose making the federal Supreme Court ruling retroactive in Minnesota. He said prosecutors support legislation that keeps life without parole as an option for judges. The bill outlines factors that judges should consider in weighing such a sentence, including a defendant's emotional development and education.

Orput, the Washington County prosecutor, said it's good to give juvenile defendants a chance to argue these mitigating circumstances when they face a sentence of life with no release. But he said some, like Roman Nose, deserve to be put away for life.

"Fundamentally it comes down to can someone under 18 forfeit their ability to live a life in free society, and I think the answer is yeah, depending on what you do," Orput said.

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