Court eases sentencing power of judges in some murder cases
Detroit — The case of an overnight attack on a couple in a small Michigan town could rewrite the rules for life sentences for teens convicted of murder.
The state appeals court said juries — not judges — must decide whether someone under 18 gets life in prison without parole — an extraordinary shift in Michigan’s justice system.
Juries determine guilt at trials, of course, but punishment has been reserved for judges. An appeal to the state Supreme Court is certain.
“This is certainly a ruling that is unique, and in our opinion unsupported by case law,” said Michael Wendling, prosecutor in St. Clair County.
Tia Skinner was a 17-year-old honors student bound for college when she plotted to have her father killed in 2010. She left a window open and a ladder outside the house in Yale, 85 miles northeast of Detroit. She drew a map of the neighborhood, used text messages to communicate with the killers and chose knives, according to the evidence.
Skinner was upset that her parents disapproved of her boyfriend, an 18-year-old who was also convicted. Paul Skinner was stabbed to death while wife Mara Skinner survived 26 stab wounds. Both were in bed.
Skinner was sentenced to life in prison without parole. But the appeals court, in a 2-1 decision on Aug. 20, turned the case upside down, saying her constitutional rights were violated during the sentencing phase of the case.
A prosecutor seeking a no-parole sentence for teens convicted of first-degree murder must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime is a reflection of “irreparable corruption,” judges Stephen Borrello and Joel Hoekstra said. In other words, it must be something so heinous that no opportunity for parole is deserved.
If the jury believes that burden hasn’t been met, the defendant would be sentenced to a term of years by a judge, the appeals court said.
“That is a groundbreaking decision,” said John Livesay, a former prosecutor who represented Skinner at trial.
The appeals court tied its decision to a line of U.S. Supreme Court cases, especially a 2012 opinion that teens must be treated differently than adults if convicted of first-degree murder.
“It’s what many of us have been arguing all along,” said Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor lawyer with expertise in juvenile justice issues. “In order to impose a life-without-parole sentence, the jury has to make specific determinations that a youth is one of those rare youth … with no hope of growing up and being rehabilitated.”
If the decision stands, it would apply in the future to any teen convicted of first-degree murder. It likely would lead to new hearings for about a dozen others given no-parole sentences by judges since 2012, LaBelle said.
Wendling, whose office handled the Skinner case, said the appeals court has set an extremely high standard for a no-parole sentence for teens.
“It’s a step toward closing out this type of sentence,” he said. “Irreparable corruption — that’s asking a jury to predict future behavior of a 17-year-old. I don’t know how any finder of fact could make that determination beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Livesay said some teens convicted of murder might have a better chance at dodging a life sentence with a jury than a judge. He recalled bumping into a Skinner juror long after the trial.
“I got the impression the jury had some empathy for her because of her age and so forth. That’s just guessing,” Livesay said.
Wendling said a no-parole sentence still fits for Skinner, now 22.
“She was the mastermind of this crime,” he said.
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