Inside Report for Dec. 4, 2012

Tevin Crockett was convicted and sentenced last year to an automatic term of life in prison for the 2009 slaying of a man at the Brandywine Condominiums in Baton Rouge when Crockett was just 15.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in an Alabama case that states cannot automatically impose life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles in murder cases.

So, in the first of what is expected to be many such actions, a state appellate court recently sent Crockett’s case back to a Baton Rouge judge and ordered him to conduct a new sentencing hearing in accordance with the Supreme Court’s June 25 decision.

The high court held in Miller v. Alabama that the U.S. Constitution’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.

“Miller does not, however, establish a prohibition against life imprisonment without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders in every case, but rather requires a sentencing court to consider the offender’s youth and attendant characteristics as mitigating circumstances before deciding to impose the harshest possible penalty for juveniles,” a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge noted Nov. 14 in vacating Crockett’s life term.

The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office said it has not determined how many new sentencing hearings will have to be conducted for juveniles previously sentenced in the 19th Judicial District Court to automatic life terms. The Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has said the Supreme Court ruling will have a retroactive impact across the state.

Assistant District Attorney Tracey Barbera, who prosecuted Crockett and co-defendant Rondale Simpson in the April 2009 killing of 57-year-old Theodore Lange, argued at Crockett’s trial that Crockett was a man. She said he graduated to adulthood when he put a gun in his hand and fatally shot Lange.

The Supreme Court said in its June ruling that a sentencing court should consider a juvenile’s “chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” the 1st Circuit explained.

The high court said a sentencing judge also should look at “the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional,” and the circumstances of the offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct “and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him,” the appeals court noted.

The justices said another consideration for the judge is whether the juvenile “might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth — for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys,” the 1st Circuit panel stated.

The Supreme Court said the possibility of rehabilitation should be examined when circumstances suggest it, the panel said.

Crockett, of Baton Rouge, is now 19. He also was found guilty of the armed robbery of another man at the Brandywine complex and was sentenced to 50 years on that charge. State District Judge Richard Anderson had ordered Crockett’s life term for second-degree murder and the 50-year term to run concurrently. The 1st Circuit affirmed the 50-year sentence.

Simpson, also 19, pleaded guilty in February to armed robbery and manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was 16 at the time of the offense.

Joe Gyan Jr. covers courts for The Advocate. He can be reached at jgyan@theadvocate.com.