LAFAYETTE — Nearly 300 Louisiana prison inmates have a stake in this year’s legislative session where lawmakers will rewrite sentencing statutes for juveniles who are 17 or younger when they commit murder.
Current laws in Louisiana and some other states mandate that juveniles who are tried as adults for murder face the same penalty as an adult convicted of murder — life without parole or reduction of sentence. Adults, although not juveniles, are subject to the death penalty if convicted in a case prosecuted as a capital murder.
Louisiana’s law is in line for changes as a result of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision titled Miller v. Alabama. The nation’s high court ruled in that case that automatic life sentences for youths violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that a sentencing hearing is required for inmates who were 17 or younger at the time of the killing. At the sentencing hearing a judge or jury would hear arguments by defense attorneys and prosecutors and view evidence.
In its decision, justices wrote that state laws must contain some possibility of parole, though a judge or jury can still impose a sentence of life without parole after a sentencing hearing.
According to the Louisiana Department of Corrections, there are 281 inmates in state prison who could be affected by the decision.
“I think the right way to do it is get the Legislature to make a decision and get that behind us,” E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, said last week.
“I’m sure some people would like to see automatic parole, but that’s not what we’re going to propose,” Adams said.
Advocates for juvenile offenders hope the changes bring freedom for some of the 281 Louisiana inmates locked up for murder convictions when they were young.
“Some of them are old men, quite frankly, who are in the twilight of their lives,” said Carol Kolinchak, legal director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.
Kolinchak said the oldest state inmate who could be affected is 71 years old.
The possibility of parole also extends to inmates like Dale Dwight Craig, of Baton Rouge, who was 17 in 1992 when he shot and killed an LSU student from Pineville.
Craig’s attorney, John Landis, said last week that he has been in touch with Craig about the Supreme Court ruling but has not yet filed for a hearing.
“He will be entitled to be resentenced under the standards of that (Supreme Court) case, in my opinion,” Landis said.
Judges too are awaiting sentencing specifics from the Legislature.
Earlier this month, state District Judge William G. Carmichael in West Feliciana Parish delayed sentencing Trevor Reese until the Legislature acts. Reese pleaded guilty March 14 to slashing the throat of an 8-year-old boy in 2010. Reese, 19, was 16 years old when he killed Jackson “Jack” Attuso, of Clinton.
In January, Louisiana Supreme Court justices sent the life sentence of Albert Landry back to district court in New Orleans for review following the Miller decision. Landry was convicted of second-degree murder in 1976 when he was 17.
In the Landry case, the Louisiana justices said the U.S. Supreme Court “… did not establish a categorical prohibition against life without parole for juveniles but instead required that a sentencing court consider an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics as mitigating circumstances before deciding whether to impose the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.”
The Louisiana District Attorney’s Association is backing a bill, pre-filed by Rep. Chris Hazel, a Republican from Ball and a former prosecutor on the sentencing of juveniles convicted in murder cases. Hazel’s bill would require an offender to serve 50 years of a life sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
Hazel said the five-decade incarceration requirement was not unduly harsh.
“That person who is deceased has no possibility of life,”Hazel said. “It has been extinguished. … To me, that kind of pales in comparison to taking away someone’s loved one.”
Kolinchak opposes Hazel’s bill, which she said would keep the offenders in prison until they’re in their 60s. She said other specifics of the Hazel bill go against the spirit of last year’s Miller decision.
“It’s sort of a one-size-fits-all, and so it doesn’t comply with the individualized sentencing that Miller requires,” she said.
Julie Kilborn, with the Louisiana Public Defender Board, said in an email that the 2012 decision also allows the courts to address deficiencies in the offenders’ legal representation. The decision, she said, “creates an opportunity for the state to reduce substantial criminal justice costs by ensuring appropriate sentences.”
Last year’s Miller decision was a continuation by the Supreme Court in softening penalties for juveniles. In 2005, justices took away states’ ability to execute those who were youths when they committed murder.
In 2010, following another Supreme Court decision, the Louisiana Legislature amended the sentencing laws for juveniles convicted of rape and kidnapping from mandatory life with no parole to parole eligibility after serving 30 years.
Mike Harson, district attorney for the 15th Judicial District, which consists of Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes, said there are four inmates serving life sentences who could be affected by Miller.
One of them is Shannon Touchet, who was 17 when he took part in the holdup and killing of Lafayette oil company executive Ronald Shaw in 1998.
Harson said he too is waiting on what the Legislature passes.
“The court is supposed to set up the principle, and the Legislature should set up the steps” of sentencing laws, Harson said
Chester Cedars, a prosecutor in St. Martin Parish, one of three parishes that make up Louisiana’s 16th Judicial District, said he believes the Miller decision should not apply to convicts imprisoned before Miller.
Cedars has convicted two St. Martin Parish men who were juveniles at the time of crime.
“Despite their age, a jury of 12 people in the parish found them guilty of murder,” Cedars said. “Evil knows no age.”
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