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Here's a question. Should people who commit serious crimes as minors be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole? Well, the Supreme Court has ruled that, in many cases, the answer should be no. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports that in Michigan, which has long had a get-tough approach for juvenile offenders, the court's rulings have left the fate of hundreds of prisoners in limbo and also reopened old wounds for victims' families.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Before the Supreme Court rulings, in Michigan, about 360 inmates convicted as minors were serving life without parole, the second-highest number in the country. Now some are working to adjust to a new world. Six of those former inmates showed up for a recent workshop set up by the State Appellate Defenders Office, or SADO, to learn about establishing good credit.
DEANGELO STEWART: I'm DeAngelo Stewart. I've been out since August 15 after serving 31 years.
ERIC KAMEN: Eric Kamen. I've been home...
CORLEY: There was also 60-year-old Edward Sanders, looking businesslike in a blue shirt and a tie. He was paroled this past summer after spending 42 1/2 years in prison. Sanders was 17 when he was convicted of first-degree murder in 1975. He was a passenger in the car of a drive-by shooting. He says he is nothing like the teenager sentenced four decades ago.
EDWARD SANDERS: I don't identify with that youth that committed the offenses that he committed. I condemn that youth. I rebuke his behavior. I'm not that person.
CORLEY: While in prison, Sanders got his undergraduate degree and helped other inmates. There are about 40 former juvenile lifers in Michigan that are out of prison now. That's a result of two Supreme Court decisions that ruled, first, that mandatory life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional and, second, that all of those with that sentence should have a chance to go home. Michigan has long been a battleground in the fight over keeping those convicted minors, many now middle-aged, behind bars.
DEBORAH LABELLE: We're talking about 236 youth. They have not had any opportunity to show and demonstrate that they are rehabilitated and that they're entitled to go home.
CORLEY: Defense attorney Deborah LaBelle says more than 60 percent of the juvenile lifers would stay in prison without parole if Michigan prosecutors have their way. She says that's wrong. She adds, resentencing hearings for hundreds of inmates are on hold because of another court fight which could delay opportunities for parole for years. LaBelle says that clearly was not the intention of the U.S. Supreme Court.
LABELLE: Then they said, while as children, they may have committed quite awful offenses of murder, there is among them only the rarest of that group that should be held to the standard of having a life-without-parole sentence.
CORLEY: Because the Supreme Court said many of those young people could be rehabilitated.
LABELLE: And you have to know that many of these kids that they're saying are irredeemable or irreparable - they haven't even killed anyone. They were the bystanders, the aiders and abettors, the kid who was the lookout.
CORLEY: Michigan county prosecutors had a deadline to name the juvenile lifers they thought were too dangerous to ever be released and who should be resentenced. Several decided that the sentence of life without parole for all the juvenile lifers in their custody should remain the same.
KYM WORTHY: I can't speak about other counties. I can speak about Wayne County. I am aware that some counties are contesting all of these. That's their right to do so. We chose to take a different approach.
CORLEY: Kym Worthy is a prosecutor for Wayne County, which includes Detroit and has the state's largest number of juvenile lifers - more than 140. She recommended life without parole in 62 of those cases. She says her office evaluated each of the cases individually, reviewing case files, psychological evaluations and talking to victims' families. Worthy says too often, the family's plight is ignored.
WORTHY: No one talks about - that would be if your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, one of your children were killed under these circumstances. Think about how you would feel if the person was convicted - rightfully so. No one's saying anything's wrong with the convictions here. And then we're going to redrudge (ph) this up for you again. Well, that's very, very difficult.
JODY ROBINSON: I go back to May 12, 1990, and I am reliving the horror that I felt as a young teenager myself.
CORLEY: Jody Robinson is president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers. Her 28-year-old brother, James Cotaling, was stabbed to death in 1990. A 16-year-old girl and her 19-year-old pimp were both sentenced to life without parole. Robinson says many families hope that sentence would provide some legal finality, but they continue to be at the mercy of the offenders and their advocates.
ROBINSON: For these individuals, life meant nothing. The offender wants a second chance. I ask, where's my second chance to dance at my brother's wedding, or dance with him at my wedding or to see his children? That was stripped from me, and nobody's moving mountains, trying to give me a second chance.
CORLEY: Advocates for the prisoners say they understand the anger of some victims' families, but the Supreme Court ruled it's not what the prisoners did when they were minors but who they are now. And for now, victims' families, prosecutors and advocates continue to wrestle with what happens next for juvenile lifers in Michigan. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Detroit.
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