Top, Jonathan Belton, 21, was convicted of murder at age 16. Below, from left, lifers Dontez Tillman, Nicole Ann Dupure, Ihab Masalamani, Henry Hill, Tia Skinner and Jean Pierre Orlewicz. )
Lansing— In April 2004, Nicole Dupure’s 19-year-old boyfriend William Blevins killed 89-year-old Shirley Perry, according to all accounts, strangling and stabbing Dupure’s childhood babysitter seven times in her St. Clair Shores apartment.
Where the defense and prosecutor parted ways was on 17-year-old Dupure’s role in the murder. The defense team contended she wasn’t involved and was sitting in a Big Boy restaurant at the time of the killing, while Blevins and police contend she masterminded the plot and was in Perry’s apartment helping to steal cash and distract the senior before she was slain.
The difference is Blevins is serving 20 to 50 years in prison with a shot at parole after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in a plea deal, while Dupure was sentenced to life in prison without parole after being found guilty of first-degree murder, felony murder and conspiracy in a jury trial.
But recent federal court decisions have given hope to Dupure and Michigan’s estimated 368 other “juvenile lifers” in prison on mandatory life-without-parole sentences. They may now get reduced prison terms and perhaps eventual freedom as the Legislature wrestles with the issue under a court order and the state Supreme Court prepares to address it.
The rulings also have caused the loved ones of crime vicitims to cringe at the thought of enduring resentencing hearings and of the potential release of those involved in the crime.
The family of slain Oak Park Police Officer Mason Samborski lives in dread of seeing Detroiter Jonathan Belton get a chance at a reduced sentence as they try to find closure.
“And now he can sit in his cell with the hope things will get better for him while for us, it can only get worse,” said Ken Samborski, Mason’s father.
The conflicting emotions are surfacing as the Legislature struggles to pass bills to allow re-sentencing — but not immediate eligibility for parole — for Michigan’s juvenile lifers, while facing a federal judge’s Jan. 31 deadline to reform state sentencing policies. The bills also would permit less-than-life sentences for juveniles who commit murders in the future.
The bills were prompted by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision called no-parole juvenile life sentences an unconstitutional form of cruel and unusual punishment because they fail to allow parole consideration based on a young person’s potential to be rehabilitated.
Last year, Ann Arbor federal Judge John Corbett O’Meara ruled Michigan’s no-parole life sentences for minors are out of line with the Supreme Court ruling. In November, he ordered the state to develop a plan for giving parole consideration to its juvenile lifers, and threatened to appoint a special master should the state fail to meet his deadline at the end of the month.
State Sen. Rick Jones, a chief author of Michigan’s legislation, said the proposals comply with the Supreme Court ruling.
“All the experts have advised me the way we have it written up will satisfy the Supreme Court’s decision,” said Jones, R-Grand Ledge, whose Senate-approved bill stalled in the House, where the GOP has a narrower majority.
Other lawmakers and the lead lawyer in a federal lawsuit over Michigan’s juvenile lifer law disagree. Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle, representing prisoners in an American Civil Liberties Union-backed lawsuit, said the proposal is little more than a ploy.
“This Legislature isn’t taking the Supreme Court ruling seriously,” LaBelle said. “It’s fighting it. It’s trying to avoid it.”
Under the proposed legislation, a prosecutor still could seek a life sentence without parole for an underage defendant convicted in connection with first-degree murder.
A judge could issue a lesser sentence, but it would have to be for a minimum of 25-40 years or up to a maximum of 60 years. The same rules would be used for re-sentencing current juvenile lifers.
Michigan has the second highest number of juvenile lifers in the nation behind Pennsylvania, according to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, whose state rankings the ACLU of Michigan says remain accurate.
Michigan is among at least 11 states reconsidering their sentencing laws under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Jones’ bill, part of a Republican-backed package to effect reforms, applies only to offenders convicted after it took effect. The House revised it to include those currently incarcerated, but its Republican majority couldn’t muster enough votes to pass it, said House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills.
Greimel admitted his own caucus “has diverse views” on the issue but also criticized Attorney General Bill Schuette for contesting O’Meara’s ruling.
Schuette, a Republican, maintains allowing parole hearings for current juvenile lifers would “re-victimize” slaying victims’ families. On Dec. 23, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals stayed O’Meara’s order pending the outcome of an appeal by the attorney general.
The court said O’Meara was giving the state “a remarkably short amount of time for compliance, given the scope of the undertaking.”
Meanwhile, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to take up three prisoner cases and consider whether Michigan lifers convicted as juveniles should be entitled to parole hearings. It is likely to rule in the summer.
Ari Adler, spokesman for Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger of Marshall, said GOP leaders plan to continue working on legislation.
The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan backs the legislation while opposing parole for current juvenile lifers.
“We don’t want to retraumatize the victims’ families,” said Genesee County prosecutor David Leyton, immediate past president of the organization. “They have been through enough.”
Supreme Court issue
But the ACLU’s LaBelle said the legislation fails to meet the Supreme Court standard and essentially keeps juvenile lifers behind bars until they die.
“The courts are grappling with this issue,” LaBelle said. “I’m not sure why, when the Michigan Supreme Court is grappling with this issue, the Michigan Legislature is stepping in at this point.”
The lead plaintiff in her lawsuit, Henry Hill Jr., is 50 years old and a prison cook. He was 16 and functionally illiterate when convicted in 1980 for the death of another youth, Anthony Thomas, in a Saginaw park, according to court documents.
Hill was one of two minors imprisoned for aiding and abetting the slaying of Thomas by an older youth who pulled the trigger.
Another Michigan juvenile lifer, Saulo Montalvo, was 16 when he drove the getaway car for two friends who killed cashier Rodney Corp during a 1996 Grand Rapids party store holdup. Members of Corp’s family testified in favor of reforms and his release at a 2012 legislative hearing.
Jones looks at juvenile lifer cases from his perspective as a former sheriff.
“These are people who have taken lives,” he said. “We’ve got to bring the state into compliance with the Supreme Court decision ... but (in a way) that judges will look at how heinous the crime was.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Mike Martindale contributed.