Saturday, December 8, 2007

Harsh crimes, hard time: when juveniles are sentenced to life without parole

EDITOR'S NOTE -- What does it mean to send a kid criminal away for life, and is it just? This is another in a series of stories on a growing effort to reform penalties against juvenile offenders.


AP National Writer

DETROIT (AP) -- It began as a feud only a child could invent -- teenage chest-thumping over who had the right to sneak across the golf course at Germania Town & Country Club after dark and scoop lost balls out of a pond.

But by the time it ended in the pre-dawn blackness of a long-ago June morning, that juvenile bravado had exploded into a crime whose horror defied adult comprehension.

Buried inside the charred skeleton of a Saginaw home, three children -- 7-year-old Isaac Rollie and his 9- and 11-year-old sisters -- lay dead. They perished at the hands of two local teens, who hurled pop-bottle firebombs through the windows of the house on Jordan Street so one could settle a petty score.

For taking three innocent lives, a judge decided, Michael Lee Perry had to pay. Perry was 16 at the time of the fire, but for an adult crime he'd have to do adult time -- and spend the rest of his life in prison, without any chance for parole.

That was 17 years ago. And today, when Perry rises and offers his hand to a visitor allowed inside the razor wire-topped brick of Detroit's Mound Correctional Facility, it is clear that prisoner No. 217645's claim on childhood has long since lapsed.

He stands 6-foot-2, graying at the temples, his hairline receding. No question, Perry is a man now.

He appeals, though, for the understanding he says the boy he once was still deserves.

"I was wrong. I took people's lives who didn't even have a chance to grow up and experience life. But, I mean, I didn't even experience life myself,'' says Perry, now 34. "I'm not saying a child should go unpunished. ... (But) it's like I'm just abandoned, discarded, left for nothing.''

Perry is far from alone.

At least 2,381 people are serving life without parole in U.S. prisons for crimes when they were 17 or younger. The vast majority are locked up because they took another life.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that sentencing juveniles to death is unconstitutional, advocates have been nudging lawmakers, courts and the public to go one step further and re-examine the life sentences meted out to young people convicted of the most serious crimes.

If we believe that juveniles are intrinsically different from adults -- that their judgment is lacking, that they are capable of learning from mistakes -- then how can we justify locking them away forever?

It is a difficult question and a painful one to contemplate. Some of the crimes are horrific. Others seem downright senseless. The age of the perpetrators -- and often of their victims -- is enough to make any mother or father say a quiet prayer.

Then there is the fact that laws stringently tightened in recent years often give judges and juries little or no choice in weighing punishment. In many states, the severity of the crime, not the age of the accused, mandates trial and punishment as an adult.

Even when some measure of discretion is allowed, it can distort the choices.

When the time came to sentence Michael Perry, state law forced a judge to decide between widely disparate options. He could treat Perry as a juvenile, despite the seriousness of the crime, and see him released by 21. Or he could send him away forever.

"The only conclusion that I can reach,'' Judge Leopold Borrello told two grieving families gathered in the courtroom that day, "is that the law deprives me of doing justice.''


Quantel Lotts was 14. He and his brothers were spending the weekend at a friend's house in St. Francois County, Mo., and Quantel and his stepbrother Michael Barton started fighting. Quantel chased Michael -- who was three years older -- with a bow and arrow before an adult stepped in. Not long after, while they snacked, one of the younger children noticed Quantel holding a knife and reported him to Michael.

"Let's take this outside,'' Michael told Quantel. In the yard, their shoving match ended in Michael's death.

Quantel says he turned down an offer to plead to second-degree murder just before his trial began. Found guilty, he was sentenced to life without parole.

Today, speaking by telephone from prison, Quantel Lotts will not talk about what happened that day. But he remembers clearly where it left him.

"They say my stepbrother's dead and they say I killed him,'' he says. "When I first got locked up, I spent the first six months crying to myself every night.''


Americans are firm believers in stiff punishment. But U.S. courts long applied a more forgiving standard when the accused was a juvenile.

Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, alarm over violent youth crime set off widespread fears. Tales of brutal carjackings and brazen gang warfare, of remorseless kids who killed just to know what it felt like, filled headlines.

Soon, experts warned, we would be at the mercy of legions of juvenile "superpredators.'' In state after state, lawmakers and prosecutors decided to get tough.

Many states began requiring that juveniles accused of first-degree murder be tried as adults. To show they meant business, lawmakers mandated stiffer punishments. If you were convicted of murder, no matter how old, you were going to do life.

The new mind-set resulted in swift change. In 1980, just two juveniles were sentenced to life without parole, the harshest punishment possible short of the death penalty. By 1996, 152 youth offenders were sent to prison for life, according to figures compiled by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Today, inmates in 39 states and the federal prisons are serving life without parole for crimes they committed as youngsters. Five states -- Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Michigan, Florida and California -- account for two-thirds of the cases documented by the two human rights groups, which are pushing for reform.

The tougher laws were applauded by prosecutors and victims' advocates as necessary tools to fight crime and protect the public.

"If they can do these kinds of crimes, then they've got to face the punishment,'' says Maggie Elvey, a California activist whose husband, Ross, was beaten to death in 1993 by two boys, ages 15 and 16.

"My theory is when Ross can walk the face of the Earth again, that's when you can get out,'' Elvey says.

But the sharp rise in juvenile violence that the new laws were meant to fight never came. Gradually, that has led some to question whether the tougher approach went too far.

"There were all kinds of predictions (of a sharp rise in juvenile violence). I think I even made a few. But that hasn't panned out,'' says Linda J. Collier, a dean at Delaware County Community College in Media, Pa., among those who called for stiffer juvenile sentences. "There are probably many cases where I'd say, 'Yes, lock them up and throw away the key.' But there are probably other cases where that kid, if you look into his eyes, if you look into his soul, you can say yes, they can be rehabilitated.''

But how to do that? Should life without parole be eliminated for all juvenile offenders or only for some of them? What should the alternative be?

The questions get harder when they are applied to real lives rather than abstracts.

Addolfo Davis was only 14, but he'd already known plenty of trouble -- the child of a crack addict, he'd been arrested for shoplifting, robbery and other offenses starting when he was 10. His grandmother rejected a child welfare agency's recommendation that he be removed from her home, then watched as he beat his own head until it bled and burned himself with cigarettes.

Then, in October 1990, Davis joined two other teens -- one 16, the other 18 -- in something far worse. Angered because of a dispute over drug-sales territory, they set out to even a score. The trio, all carrying guns, headed to the third-floor apartment of a rival, and when it opened, pushed inside.

Davis didn't get far. One of the men inside knocked his gun away immediately and ran. But Davis' companions began shooting, killing two of those inside and wounding two others.

After he was arrested, Davis was transferred to adult court, in part because of his prior record. When he was convicted of murder -- found accountable although he hadn't fired a shot -- the law made it clear he would be sentenced to life. Today, he is 31.

"Gun towers, bars, walls, lock downs, hand cuffs, visits, letters, collect calls,'' he wrote for an assignment in a prison ministry class two years ago. "This is all I know.''


On a Sunday night in 1994, the kitchen staff at Bistro Pete's was too busy to notice the restaurant's back door had been left unlocked. Suddenly, two masked figures barged into the suburban Sacramento eatery. They waved guns, and barked orders. Moments later, kitchen manager David Lamburth lay dying.

Police arrested three 17-year-olds. The shot that killed Lamburth, they said, was fired by Dwayne "Tommy'' DeLuna. At trial, DeLuna acknowledged his role but claimed the shooting was an accident.

"Show some mercy. Consider his age. I know what's in his heart,'' DeLuna's mother pleaded with the judge, after he was found guilty. "He is a good kid.''

But the victim's mother begged to differ. "He's dead. You did it. When you shot my kid, Tommy, you shot me, too.''

In weighing punishment, a judge told DeLuna the legal system had already shown mercy. If he'd been a few months older at the time of the shooting, he could've faced execution. Instead, with five months left in his childhood in the eyes of the law, he was sentenced to life without parole.


Sending juveniles to prison for life raises a host of tough questions. Colorado tangled with them last year when lawmakers made juvenile lifers eligible for parole after 40 years and the governor established a special clemency board to look at those already in prison. Legislators in Illinois and California have introduced bills calling for change.

Now, Michigan -- where 306 inmates are serving life for crimes they committed when they were 17 or younger -- could be the next to face those questions.

At least that is the hope of Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor attorney pushing for reform. She lambastes the inconsistencies of a legal system that deems people too immature to vote or drink alcohol or serve on juries, but says they are old enough to be held accountable as adults for their crimes. Worse, she says, is that mandating life sentences forces courts to treat all youth convicted of murder the same.

"Aren't there kids who have done horrible things? Yes. But then you have to grant that aren't there kids who didn't, who just made a horrible decision,'' she says. "Shouldn't we individualize them? Aren't they at least entitled to that?''

LaBelle's files are filled with dozens of such stories.

Some echo the "poster child'' cases highlighted by advocates -- tales of teens who, at least in the retelling, are guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Often, they acted as accomplices but didn't pull the trigger, or committed crimes at the behest of someone older.

But the debate is crystallized in the cases that force hard choices -- harsh sentences vs. harsh crimes.

They are stories like Trevor Brownlee's, who admonishes himself -- 18 years too late -- for his days as a teenage drug dealer on the streets of Ypsilanti. In 1989, when Brownlee was 15, he and two friends set out for a party. Local gangs were feuding. Underneath his trenchcoat, Brownlee carried a sawed-off shotgun.

It wasn't long before Brownlee's group ran into teens they'd never seen before, in from Detroit. Soon, they started trading words over turf. The confrontation seemed to fizzle. Then, Brownlee's friend shouted an alarm: Was one of the out-of-towners reaching for a gun?

Brownlee didn't wait to find out. He fired into the Detroit teens' car, then shot one in the torso, another in the leg. The first was killed. The second was paralyzed from the waist down.

Today, Brownlee wears No. 211016 on the state blues issued to prisoners at Riverside Correctional Facility in Ionia, where he is serving life. The sentence has given him plenty of time to think about that night. What troubles him goes beyond knowledge that he killed someone. It's that, in his words, the crime was "about nothing.''

"It wasn't until I was 25 that I actually sat down and realized the full extent of what I did,'' says Brownlee, now 33. "Man, I was an idiot. That's the best way to describe it.''

Brownlee and others like him hope Michigan lawmakers see that they can learn and change, that they are worthy of a second chance. But backers of life without parole sharply disagree.

They're people like Michael Thomas, the prosecutor in Saginaw, whose strong support for juvenile life sentences is based on personal experience. Years of violent juvenile crime have defiled his hometown, making clear the need to protect the public and see that justice is done, he says.

"I think most people sitting on a jury, most people with houses in your neighborhood, pretty much understand that they (juveniles accused of heinous crimes) are the worst of the worst and that the penalty does fit the crime,'' he says.


On the day Michael Lee Perry was sentenced for the Saginaw firebombing, the judge sought a middle ground that did not exist.

Instead, he sentenced Perry to life, while recommending that after 20 years a Michigan governor consider him for a reprieve, commutation or pardon.

Perry is already preparing his petition for freedom.

"When I go see Michael he gives me hope that everything will be better when he comes home,'' his mother, Maria Chavira, says.

But Perry recognizes that political calculus makes exoneration rare. Even as he reassures his mother, he tries to makes peace with the possibility that will never happen.

"If I do (spend) my life within these walls and fences, I'll accept my punishment,'' he wrote the judge two years ago, in a letter intended for the family of his victims, "and do it in the memory of the pain, suffering, heartaches and deaths I helped cause.''

"I will never forget.''

AP-ES-12-08-07 1215EST

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