Supreme Court case: Hope for Idaho teens sentenced to life?
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Among Idaho’s nearly 8,000 inmates, there are four who not only did their growing up behind bars but can expect to die there as well.
Ethan Windom, Sarah Johnson, Torey Adamcik and Brian Draper: Each one convicted of murder — or in Johnson’s case, murders — while still juveniles, each sentenced to life without parole.
It’s the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach to criminal justice, reserved in Idaho for what judges deem to be the worst juvenile criminal cases. But it’s also an area of law that is rapidly evolving, with several recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings finding that harsh punishments normally levied against adult offenders are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual when imposed on juveniles.
In the Idaho cases:
— Windom was 17, fascinated with serial killers and diagnosed with anxiety and major depressive disorder when he said he experienced a strong urge to kill on Jan. 24, 2007. He armed himself with two knives and a club made out of weights and a dumbbell, and killed his mother.
— Johnson was 16 when she was charged with murdering her parents. Diane and Alan Scott Johnson were shot to death with a high-powered rifle in their home in September 2003.
— Draper and Adamcik were 16 when they videotaped themselves planning the murder of 17-year-old Cassie Jo Stoddart. She was stabbed to death in 2006.
Five years ago the U.S. Supreme Court barred states from imposing mandatory life-without-parole sentences on anyone under 18 convicted of murder, and last year the court made its ruling retroactive. The court reasoned that the more than 2,000 offenders already serving such sentences must be given the chance “to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption,” and, if it did not, they should have some hope for freedom.
In Idaho, there’s no mechanism for notifying inmates that new Supreme Court rulings could have an impact on their sentence. It’s up to the inmate to find it, read it, and bring it up in court.
If they’ve already completed their direct appeals — as all four of Idaho’s juvenile-life-without-parole inmates have — they don’t have an automatic right to an attorney.
“We don’t have a standardized process,” said Eric Fredericksen, the state appellate public defender.
Idaho doesn’t require life-without-parole sentences for any crimes committed by juveniles, but defense attorneys argue the state’s sentencing process still must be adjusted to reflect the Supreme Court’s ruling that the sentence is unconstitutional for all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects “permanent incorrigibility.”
Idaho defense attorney Dennis Benjamin took it on himself to make sure Idaho’s four juvenile lifers were made aware of the rulings. He represented Johnson and Adamcik pro bono, wrote a letter to Windom, and reached out to Draper’s attorneys.
“To deny these (inmates) of the opportunity to even ask for parole? The interest that serves is beyond me,” said Benjamin.
Benjamin said Idaho should automatically review all four sentences. He’s already raised the issue in Johnson’s case, but the appellate court found that the judge had already considered mitigating factors when she was sentenced. That was enough to satisfy the new requirements, the court ruled.
Benjamin intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up Johnson’s case. “It’s impossible for an appellate court to look 12 years in hindsight,” he said, “and determine what a sentencing judge would have done had he known of the correct legal standard.”
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Read more about the series: https://apnews.com/tag/LockedUpForLife