Juvenile Sentencing Ruling May Affect Michigan Case

This week, the Supreme Court struck down mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles. Youth Radio's Sayre Quevedo looks at one case in Michigan that may be affected by the court's decision.

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Well, here's a decision that did break along more usual lines. The Supreme Court also ruled this week, 5-to-4, that mandating life sentences without the chance of parole for juveniles is unconstitutional. This offers some hope of release to more than 2,000 felons across the country. Youth Radio's Sayre Quevedo takes us inside one of those cases in Michigan.

SAYRE QUEVEDO, BYLINE: Efren Paredes Jr. says he's been reading every amicus brief leading up to this week's Supreme Court ruling, hoping to find a way out of his sentence of life without parole. Paredes is 40 now and was 16 years old when he was convicted of murder. At 10 a.m., Monday, in the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan, Paredes says he was glued to the TV.

EFREN PAREDES JR.: I was in my cell watching the television. The immediate response was excitement. I smiled. I was really happy about the decision.

QUEVEDO: Paredes was a teenager when he was sentenced to life without parole in 1989 for the murder of his boss, Rick Tetzlaff, a manager at the grocery store where he worked in St. Joseph, Michigan. He claims he was framed by three teens who all took plea deals and got off on shorter sentences. Around the country, Latino civil rights activists have taken up his cause, believing his innocence.

With the Supreme Court's ruling, Paredes is now hoping to have his attorney, Stuart Friedman, bring his case back to court for resentencing or to apply for parole. But Friedman says there are still a lot unknowns.

STUART FRIEDMAN: The best-case scenario is he could be home within a year, but, you know, I don't want to count my chickens before they're hatched, and I'm not telling him to start packing yet either.

QUEVEDO: State officials say they're working on a plan to move forward based on the Supreme Court's ruling. It's unclear whether felons who are convicted as juveniles will even be eligible for resentencing, but many legal experts think they will. Even if they are resentenced, they could end up getting life without parole all over again.

While optimistic, Efren Paredes is still trying to figure out how the ruling might affect his fate.

JR.: You know, for me specifically, it's been 23 years. I think it's overwhelming. There's so many different things that have to be done now and none of them are going to be easy so those are the things now that are on my mind.

QUEVEDO: Of the roughly 2,100 prisoners nationally who could be affected by the Supreme Court ruling, most will need representation to figure out their status.

ALICIA D'ADDARIO: One of the big challenges will actually be finding counsel for all of those folks.

QUEVEDO: Alicia D'Addario was co-counsel on the case decided by the Supreme Court this week. She expects this issue of available and affordable counsel to be a big one, especially in states like Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Michigan.

D'ADDARIO: Many of these people are in states where there is no right to counsel for that kind of a proceeding, and so one of the unexpected things going forward is that these children are going to be desperately in need of lawyers.

QUEVEDO: Michael Sepic was the Michigan prosecutor in Efren Paredes' case. Despite Paredes maintaining his innocence from day one, Sepic believes he acted as an adult and says he'd argue for the same sentence all over again. Regardless of what the Supreme Court ruled this week, Sepic's greatest concern is not for those convicted, but for the families of victims.

MICHAEL SEPIC: It just opens up these wounds to victims who basically, in short, were told that this person that killed their loved one would be in prison for the rest of their life.

QUEVEDO: In response to the ruling, the Michigan Attorney General's office says it's committed to working with prosecutors around the state, to make sure that victim's families are able to tell their side of the story during future resentencing hearings. The family of Rick Tetzlaff, the man murdered in the Paredes case, declined interview requests, but it's families like theirs that will be asked to break their silence during resentencing, as prosecutors call upon them to make statements.

SEPIC: I see their reactions to these things and the pain that they go through every time something comes up. And here's now another incident that they perhaps have to live with.

QUEVEDO: Recent public opinion surveys show a majority of Americans believe that teenagers can be rehabilitated, and they want sentencing to reflect that. This week, a majority of Supreme Court Justices agreed. For NPR News, I'm Sayre Quevedo.

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