PHILADELPHIA (AP) — It’s been six months since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some 2,500 “juvenile lifers” could seek a chance at parole for their childhood crimes, but only a few aging inmates have walked out of prison.
Public defenders fear many will need the blessing of a judge, a parole board and perhaps the victim’s family, even after Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that only the “rarest of children” are so “incorrigible” they should never go free.
At least one judge in rural Pennsylvania decided this month that 46 years was punishment enough for a foster child sent away at age 15 for killing a girlfriend while rabbit hunting in 1969. Jackie Lee Thompson, 61, appears to be the first of the state’s 500 or so juvenile lifers released since the Supreme Court ruling.
“At 15, you really can’t know the impact,” said Thompson, who is living with a niece in Wellsboro, in north-central Pennsylvania, near where the crime occurred.
“In the later part of the ’70s, it really slapped me in the face and made me really starting thinking about what I did,” he told The Associated Press in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s not just the victim that got affected here. It’s the whole community. It’s your family.”
The Supreme Court in 2012 outlawed mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile defendants and this year said the ruling should be retroactive. That has left some states to devise a review process, and new sentencing grid, for people given the sentence as minors in adult court.
States with the highest caseloads include Pennsylvania, with more than 500; Michigan, Louisiana and California, with more than 300 apiece; and Florida, with more than 200.
For victims’ families, the new court hearings can mean another round of grief.
“How do you go back 26 years and have a fair proceeding?” said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, of Northfield, Illinois, whose pregnant sister and brother-in-law were fatally shot by a 16-year-old in 1990. She leads the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers.
“Nobody in our group thinks that all juveniles should have the books thrown at them for the most minor of offenses … but there are some that can be very, very dangerous even as teenagers,” she said.
In Thompson’s case, the victim’s sister and elderly father joined about 30 people in court for his June 6 re-sentencing hearing and attended the welcome-home picnic held the next day. He had done everything he could to better himself in prison, earning an associate’s degree and mastering several trades, supporters said.
“This is precisely the type of case that the Supreme Court of the United States is talking about,” said Thomas Walrath, the juvenile defender who represented him. “(He) is a completely different person than the juvenile who committed this act.”
Neither of the inmates named in the two Supreme Court cases — Evan Miller, of Alabama, and Herbert Montgomery, of Louisiana — have been re-sentenced, despite the court finding their no-parole sentences unconstitutional.
“It’s really remarkable, just how difficult it is, even with the clear guidance from the Supreme Court,” said Joshua Rovner, who has researched the issue for The Sentencing Project.
In Philadelphia, with 300 of the state’s juvenile-lifer caseload, the review process could take several years. Authorities are trying to prioritize the oldest cases, like that of 79-year-old Joe Ligon, who has served 63 years for killing two people when he was 15.
“They want him to go before a parole board. I mean, seriously?” asked Marsha Levick, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center. “It’s pointless to keep him in prison.”
District Attorney Seth Williams believes the law requires the parole board to make the final decision. He said he can’t wave “a magic wand” and let people out of prison.
One of the two Philadelphia men re-sentenced so far, Tyrone Jones, is eligible for parole after receiving a new sentence of 35 years to life. Jones, 59, has also pursued innocence claims over the years, saying his confession in a 1973 gang-related shooting was coerced. That could be a Catch-22 if the parole board wants to hear remorse.
“You can’t apologize for something you didn’t do,” said lawyer Hayes Hunt, who has worked the case pro bono for years. “We are confident and hopeful the parole board will understand.”
About 100 of the juvenile lifers from Philadelphia have been locked up for more than a quarter-century, sentenced when judges had only two choices for first- or second-degree murder: the death penalty or life without parole. That meant a life sentence for teens like 17-year-old Earl Rice Jr., sentenced after a woman whose purse he snatched in West Chester in 1973 died from the resulting fall. Rice is now 60. The victim’s family opposes his release.
In Michigan, about 360 juvenile lifers await re-sentencing, but the courts still routinely hand out life without parole sentences in new juvenile cases, something Williams, in Philadelphia, said he will no longer pursue.
Thompson and his victim, Charlotte Goodwin, were foster children in the same home. He shot her after she taunted him that she was pregnant by him, although she was not. She actually died of drowning after he and a friend dragged her body to a nearby creek. Thompson was the only person convicted.
“What kept me going, even thought I might not get out of jail, (I said,) I’m not going to be a criminal. I’m going to be the best person I can be,” he said.