No new hearings for Michigan juvenile lifers

SCOTUS: Hundreds of Michigan prisoners automatically sentenced to life behind bars for murder as teens aren't entitled to a new day in court

By Ed White
Associated Press

DETROIT — Hundreds of Michigan prisoners automatically sentenced to life behind bars for murder as teens aren't entitled to a new day in court, the state Supreme Court said Tuesday in a major decision that blocks one route to possible release but won't be the final word.

It is the latest in a series of rulings as 28 states determine how to apply a landmark 2012 U.S. Supreme Court opinion to thousands of convicts sent to prison years ago with mandatory no-parole sentences.

While Michigan prisoners lost, there's still a separate but similar challenge pending in federal court.

The U.S. Supreme Court said juveniles must be treated differently than adults and can be given a no-parole punishment only after an extensive hearing that explores their maturity, education, home life and culpability in the crime. It's possible a judge might choose a different sentence.

But the justices didn't give clear guidance on whether the decision should be applied retroactively. In a 4-3 decision, the Michigan Supreme Court said more than 300 current inmates won't receive any benefit.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Markman said the new rule is "procedural" and not "substantive," a key test when determining whether retroactivity fits. He also said there would be many problems.

"There would be considerable financial, logistical, and practical barriers placed on prosecutors to recreate or relocate evidence that had previously been viewed as irrelevant and unnecessary," Markman wrote.

"This process would not, in our judgment, further the achievement of justice under the law because it would require in many instances that the impossible be done, and if it could not be, a heavy cost would be incurred by society in the form of the premature release of large numbers of persons who will not have fully paid their legal debt to society, many of whom as a result might well continue to pose a physical threat in particular to individuals living in our most vulnerable neighborhoods," he said.

Markman was joined by Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. and justices David Viviano and Brian Zahra.

In dissent, Justice Mary Beth Kelly said new sentencing hearings would affect just a tiny fraction of Michigan's prison population and not strain the court system.

Kelly, joined by justices Michael Cavanagh and Bridget McCormack, noted that the U.S. Supreme Court found children to be different than adults under the U.S. Constitution.

But the state Supreme Court's "decision ensures that, merely because of the timing of a conviction and appeal, some children are more different than others," they said.

The state Supreme Court still won't have the final word. U.S. District Judge John Corbett O'Meara last year ordered parole hearings for the same class of prisoners, but everything is on hold while the decision is appealed by Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Schuette praised the state court ruling as a victory for crime victims and their families.

"This ruling should bring a measure of peace to the many families who struggled with the possibility of painful re-sentencing hearings for cases successfully prosecuted decades ago," he said.

The Michigan Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Church, was disappointed and said the Legislature should pass a bill that at least grants parole hearings.

"Our position is driven by the need to balance compassion and protection for victims with the opportunity for offenders to rehabilitate their lives, which should be the goal of the corrections system," the group said.

Sheldry Topp, who turns 70 in September, is the oldest Michigan inmate serving a mandatory no-parole sentence for murder as a teen in Oakland County. He has been in prison for nearly 52 years.

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