Alabama grapples with new sentences for juvenile lifers
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for murders committed when they were teenagers, dozens of Alabama inmates are seeking the chance of release one day in the light of U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning mandatory life without parole for juveniles.
At least 72 juveniles were sentenced to life without parole in Alabama, according to court records, and most of those have applied for a new sentence since the high court decisions in 2012 and again last year.
As of March, 20 of the 72 inmates had been resentenced to life and will now one day be eligible for parole, according to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. One had a parole hearing and was denied release, according to the agency. Several other inmates have resentencing hearings upcoming this year.
Five years ago, the nation’s highest court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder, saying their youth and background must be taken into account. Last year, the court said the ruling applied to the more than 2,000 inmates already serving such sentences nationwide.
The ruling offered a glimmer of hope to those sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Court fights are being waged across the state on a case-by-case basis as inmates seek resentencing.
Here’s a look at a few notable Alabama cases:
Miller was 14 in 2003 when he killed a 52-year-old neighbor by beating him with a baseball bat and setting his trailer on fire. His case became national precedent when in 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile killers.
A judge in March held a resentencing hearing for Miller, who is now 28. The judge has not yet decided whether to keep the no-parole sentence or give Miller the chance of release.
In a sentencing brief, Miller’s attorneys argued that his brain was not fully developed at age 14 to make rational decisions and that he came from a traumatic childhood of violent beatings, neglect and chaos. State prosecutors argued that Miller should never leave prison, arguing “his actions are those of an adult who brutally and mercilessly” killed someone.
CAYCE COLLINS MOORE
Moore, now 49, was 17 and considered an academically gifted student when a jury found he shot Ragland convenience store clerk Missy Macon in the back of the head in 1985. Moore pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, arguing he had been under the influence of a role-playing game “Top Secret” when he and two other teens went to the store. A jury found him guilty, and he was given the mandatory sentence of life without parole. A judge in February reduced his sentence to life with the possibility of parole. Moore came up for parole in June, but the board denied release.
Russell had just turned 15 in 1995 when he opened fire inside a downtown Opelika flea market, killing three women. Russell was quickly captured by police and confessed.
“I know it was wrong and I wish I could take it back,” he said in a police statement. He was sentenced to life without parole.
MORE ABOUT ALABAMA’S SITUATION
Alabama hasn’t banned life without parole for juveniles, but in response to the Supreme Court rulings, lawmakers last year approved another option: life with a chance of parole after 30 years.
The 30-year requirement was criticized by advocates for juvenile offenders who argue it’s a cookie-cutter approach and against the Supreme Court’s suggestion that offenders should be judged individually.
“It’s shameful,” said Ebony Howard, associate legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “When you put a child in prison for 30 years, the reality is you are essentially putting them in prison for life.”
Howard said she wasn’t arguing that juvenile offenders shouldn’t be held accountable but said that punishment should take into account their youth and unique propensity for change.
“The reality is the part of the brain that measures risk is not fully development until the mid- to late-20s,” she said.
Rep. Jim Hill, a former circuit judge who sponsored the legislation, said lawmakers believed a capital murder offense — which could bring the death penalty for an adult offender — warranted a hefty penalty even if the offender was under 18. Unlike a “regular” murder case, Hill said, there are aggravating circumstances in capital cases — such as killing someone in commission of a robbery or other crime. He said the 30-year time frame was a compromise.
“We had people who wanted to go 40. We had people who wanted 20,” Hill, R-Moody, said.
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