Traverse City Record-Eagle


November 8, 2013

Juvenile lifers added to docket

DETROIT (AP) — The Michigan Supreme Court will decide whether roughly 360 prisoners serving mandatory no-parole sentences for crimes they committed when they were under age 18 deserve a shot at freedom.

The key issue is whether a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down those sentences should be applied retroactively to inmates now behind bars. The state appeals court has said no in most cases, describing the decision as “procedural and not substantive in nature.”

The U.S. Supreme Court said automatic no-parole sentences for crimes committed by minors violated the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. Kids who commit murder or are part of the crime now must be treated differently, with judges exploring their backgrounds, home life and any other factors before choosing a life sentence or another punishment.

The Supreme Court, however, didn’t say how the decision should apply to people already in prison, leaving states and other courts to sort it out.

In an order released Thursday, the Michigan Supreme Court said it will hear arguments in cases involving juvenile lifers from Berrien, Wayne and St. Clair counties. No date was set. The cases include Dakotah Eliason, who was 14 when he killed his grandfather in Niles in 2010.

State Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was pleased with the Supreme Court’s willingness to get involved.

“There needs to be a directive as to whether those sentenced to life as minors who express remorse for their actions and have demonstrated signs of rehabilitation will be given a chance for resentencing,” Haveman said.

The oldest Michigan inmate in the juvenile lifer category is Sheldry Topp, 69, who was 17 when he was charged with murder in Oakland County. He’s been in prison since 1962.

In separate litigation, a federal judge in Ann Arbor said Michigan’s juvenile lifers are entitled to parole hearings, but nothing has happened. The attorney general’s office is vowing to appeal. The next hearing is Nov. 13.

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