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AUDIO: Michigan Supreme Court to Decide the Fate of 350 Juvenile Lifers

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The Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether more than 350 inmates sent to prison for murder as juveniles for life without parole will get a chance someday at freedom.

Life without parole used to be the automatic sentence for juveniles who were tried as adults and convicted of first degree murder. That was until June of 2012, when the US Supreme Court ruled that automatic life without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional.           

Governor Rick Snyder just signed a new law this week to update Michigan’s sentencing policies to reflect that Supreme Court decision. But that doesn’t settle what happens to Matthew Bentley.

“I was 15 years old and being in a rush to be a man. I made a mistake and now 14 years later I’m still in prison, missing out on everything I was in a rush to get,” he says in a podcast provided by the American Civil Liberties Union. Bentley shot and killed a woman during a break-in at her home. He says he would take it all back if he could:

“I sometimes think about what could have happened, what could have been different. There’s a possibility I could have went down a different path, had I gotten some better advice, had I been shown a better way, had I actually had a role model.”

Because of the US Supreme Court decision, juveniles convicted of murder or aiding and abetting in a murder now must have a hearing that takes into account their circumstances – abuse or neglect, how culpable they were in the crime, things like that. The court said the absence of that made automatic life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional because it’s cruel and unusual punishment.

Now, the ACLU and three juvenile lifers are suing the state. They say if automatic life without parole is unconstitutional going forward, then that same logic should apply to those earlier 350-plus cases, some of which date back to the early 1960s.

Kimberly Thomas is a law professor with the University of Michigan’s Juvenile Justice Clinic. She says we’ve learned a lot in recent years about shortcomings in how the legal system deals with juveniles. She says teenagers are often poor clients.

“It’s hard to get them to understand the choices that they’re making,” she says. “Especially when faced with what might be good plea bargains, they just aren’t making good choices.”

Thomas says representing minors is a unique set of skills that most defense attorneys just don’t have.

“It’s difficult to spend the extra time and develop the extra knowledge that would be useful to work with a teenaged client. They’re just different. Their comprehension of what’s happening around them is quite different than an adult’s would be.”

 And she says the proof of that is how often juveniles get tougher sentences than adults involved in the same murders, even when the juvenile was only an accessory to the crime.

The decision in this case before the state Supreme Court will likely turn on a legal nuance.

To win, the juvenile lifers have to show the US Supreme Court decision represents a substantive change in their legal rights. The state, on the other hand, is arguing that it’s not – that this was a procedural decision. It has no bearing on their guilt or innocence, and that means there’s no responsibility to go back and correct their sentences.

But this is not a nuance for another group of people closely following this case.

 “We’re the innocent, and we deserve some kind of closure to this,” says Jody Robinson. Her brother was murdered by a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old. And, she says, don’t diminish it by calling that a “mistake.” Robinson gets angry, visibly upset, when she hears that Michigan’s juvenile lifer law semtenced teens to “die” in prison.

“They weren’t sentenced to die – period. They were sentenced to live the rest of their life in prison,” she says. “They’re living. They’re not dead, and there’s a big difference between the two.”

Robinson will be at the Michigan Supreme Court hearing, she says, to represent survivors.

“You never forget what happened, but with legal finality you can move forward,” she says. “When there’s not legal finality and you’re always being dragged back to court, it’s very hard to move on.”

She says families like hers will never get their loved ones back -- and changing the rules now would deny them the measure of peace that once came with finality in their cases. 

Rick Pluta is the managing editor for the Michigan Public Radio Network.