Michigan Supreme Court Justices heard arguments Thursday that could give more than 350 inmates a chance at freedom. The prisoners were teenagers when they were sentenced to life behind bars without parole.
Justices heard three cases. Each defendant wants a chance for release under a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that says mandatory life sentences without parole is unconstitutional for juveniles.
Professor Ron Bretz at Cooley Law School says “The defense is arguing today, that this rule is so fundamentally important it reaches right down to the core of due process which is fundamental fairness, that it has to be applied retroactively."
Should the justices agree, prisoners serving life terms would be allowed a hearing, where a Judge could decide whether or not to set them free. Thirty years ago, as a criminal defense attorney, Bretz represented one of those juveniles sentenced under the old rules. Jerry Lashuay was 15, when he killed his uncle in Midland County. Bretz says the Judge went on record, saying he did not want to send Lashuay to prison for life, but he had no choice under Michigan law. Bretz believes Lashuay deserves a second chance at freedome. “He's got a college degree, he's won all these awards, he's just a terrific young man, now. He was a victim of parental abuse, etc. etc. There's all the stories there. All the kinds of things Supreme Court in Miller says the Judge should consider."
In April, 2013, Ingham County Judge R. George Economy chose not to send Charles Lewis, Jr. to prison. Lewis was just 13 years-old when he was arrested for a violent gang murder in Lansing. Instead of life behind bars, Economy gave Lewis a second change in a juvenile facility, with hopes he can be rehabilitated. Judge Economy said, “Many of them haven't had any opportunity. They came from a family that wasn't even a family. No mother, no father, and its a wonder that any other result occurred other than what happened."
Michigan's Attorney General Bill Schuette argues those convicted as juveniles should remain behind bars for life. He says if they’re released, it would be cruel and unfair to the victims’ families.
Just this week, Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill into law which changes the sentencing procedures for future juvenile defendants, bringing Michigan in line with national standards.