Hundreds of Mich. juvenile lifer cases to be reviewed

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Hundreds of killers sentenced to mandatory life without parole while in their teens could be resentenced this year, but a debate over how to process the cases has left prosecutors and lawyers in limbo.

The Michigan Court of Appeals has been asked to decide whether a judge or jury should consider whether to give offenders new sentences. A hearing is anticipated, but a date to make arguments hasn’t been set.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that sentencing a person under 18 to life in prison without parole constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” The decision potentially affects 363 cases in Michigan dating to 1962.

Prosecutors have been required to provide a list to the chief judge in every county of the cases that may require resentencing. Wayne County has the most, at 152. Oakland is second with 49, followed by Genesee with 26 and Kent with 24. Macomb has 12 cases to be reconsidered for sentencing.

Prosecutors will have to make legal motions to resentence those they feel still deserve life without parole. Other defendants will get a minimum of 25-40 years and a maximum of 60 years to serve before automatically being considered for parole.

Critics, including families of victims, argue mandatory resentencing may be unjust and open old wounds for victims who thought their cases were settled. Local law enforcement officials and prosecutors predict the process will be lengthy, costly and could further traumatize families.

Advocates say some prisoners prove they deserve freedom

Gov. Rick Snyder has recommended adding $1.1 million to the state budget to fund 11 full-time employees at the State Appellate Defenders Office for compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. But prosecutors, struggling with smaller staffs and tighter budgets, say they need more money too.

Defense and appellate attorneys agree it’ll cost money to process the cases, but they argue it’s the right thing to do.

Many young offenders are immature, act impulsively and often are under the direction of older defendants, advocates say. Some juvenile lifers already have served beyond the minimum sentences that would have otherwise taken effect under resentencing, but for the pending hearing in the Michigan Court of Appeals.

“The bottom line is we’re not opening the doors and letting them all out — there will be a process and a hearing and some will be determined unfit for release,” said Valerie Newman, an assistant defender in the State Appellate Defenders Office. “And there will still be parole hearings.”

The prosecutors

County prosecutors in Michigan say the process will take time, money and care to ensure that people who should be in prison stay there.

St. Clair County Prosecutor Michael Wendling, who recently testified before a state Senate subcommittee on potential problems with resentencing, said: “It will tie up my staff and also challenge our resources — and I have only four cases; some counties have more than a hundred.”

Wendling said after it is determined a case will be resentenced, it will mean locating victims, witnesses and experts and diverting assistant prosecutors from new cases.

Among Wendling’s old cases is one from 2010 in which Tia Skinner, then 17, plotted with a boyfriend to kill her parents after they took away her cellphone. Skinner has been resentenced twice, Wendling said.

Another involves James Porter, then 17, of Yale who on one morning in 1982, balanced a .22 rifle on the handlebars of his bicycle, pedaled to the house of a friend with whom he had a dispute and fatally shot the teen and four family members.

“I suspect we will be seeking the same sentences on all four of our juvenile lifers — these aren’t shoplifting cases,” Wendling said.

Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, whose 26 juvenile lifer convictions is the third-highest for a Michigan county, said: “We’re going to need resources to do due justice.”

“It’s not an easy task,” said Leyton, whose county records about 38,000 felonies annually. “I have 38 assistants but will need three new full-time positions — costing about $250,000 a year — just to pursue them.”

Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith said he is still assessing his workload to determine how he will proceed.

“We have to find the (old) files, experts, review the evidence and facts, case by case,” he said “I don’t know if we will seek the same resentencing on all 12 of our cases or not. I do know we will try to find the victims’ family and talk to them before we make any decision.

“These (families) are people who thought they had put that part of their lives behind them and now we are pulling the Band-Aid off and exposing the nerves again.”

The victim’s families

One local victims’ rights advocate calls the mandatory resentencing process “a horror story.”

Jody Robinson, president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, said “unless you have gone through it, you have no idea how hard this is on families of the victims.” The organization has about 400 families in its support group membership.

Robinson’s brother, James Cotaling, 28, of Pontiac disappeared on Mother’s Day 1990, on his way to buy his mother a card. He was found three days later under blankets in a vacant house, dead of multiple stab wounds.

Barbara Hernandez, then 17, and a boyfriend, James Hyde, 20, were arrested in Ohio in Cotaling’s car and later convicted in his death. The pair had schemed to lure someone to a vacant house to kill them and steal the victim’s car.

“They talk of ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ ” Robinson said, referring to the June 2012 Supreme Court ruling overturning mandatory life sentences for juveniles. “What is more cruel than what we and other families have been put through again and again and again? Appeals. Commutation hearings. This is a horror story we thought was over 25 years ago.

“I believe if you’re able to plan over three days to steal a car and murder someone — and then stabbing them 26 times ... I don’t believe you have been sentenced too harshly. I don’t believe you are entitled to a second chance. Why? My brother didn’t get a second chance.”

The defense attorneys

But defense attorneys say the resentencing will bring justice in many cases where young defendants were convicted on shaky or false grounds. They also say many have paid their debt to society after decades in prison and deserve a chance at rehabilitation.

Newman, of the State Appellate Defenders Office, is working on an appeal for John Hall, 66, convicted of the 1967 death of a man beaten in a darkened Detroit alley during an armed robbery. She said the conviction was reached — after one hung jury — despite no hard evidence linking Hall to the crime and his alibi. Witnesses said he was elsewhere at the time.

“He has already served 43 years in prison,” she noted. “Under the ruling, he would have already served his minimum sentence and would have to be considered for parole.”

Attorney Deborah LaBelle, whose Ann Arbor firm is handling about 100 of the juvenile lifer cases in Michigan, agreed with Newman.

“About two-thirds of them have served about 25 years,” she said.

“What about those who realize and accept the wrongfulness of their acts and have not had one misconduct in 20 years? They’ve done everything they can and aren’t of any risk.”

LaBelle noted some examples, like 59-year-old David Walton, who was 17 when he and two friends argued over a debt in February 1975. It’s unclear who fired the shot that killed one man.

Walton is “deeply trusted by staff” at the Ryan Correctional Facility, she said. Some prisoners at the Detroit prison, including Walton, may have saved the life of a Corrections officer who had been targeted by an angry inmate in their unit. According to a state prison document, prisoners blocked doors, dressed the officer in state “prisoner blues” and “sent him out a unit window” to safety.

In a 2010 lifer review report at the prison, resident unit manager Alan Greason said Walton has been cited for work on numerous service projects, including an Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship program, a “Dose of Reality” tour program for youth and a gymnasium floor restoration.

“Mr. Walton has proven himself worthy and well deserving of a second chance,” Greason wrote in the report, which urged then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm to commute his sentence. Granholm denied the request.

Another person who LaBelle feels deserves immediate consideration for release is Sheldry Topp, who is believed to be the oldest juvenile lifer in Michigan.

Topp, 71, was 17 years old in 1962 when he fatally stabbed an Oakland County lawyer and has served over a half-century in prison.

“He has a weak heart condition,” she said. “Let him see the night sky before he dies.”

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Notable Michigan juvenile lifer cases

■Sheldry Topp, now 71, was convicted in the 1962 fatal stabbing of an Oakland County lawyer. Topp was 17 at time of his arrest and is believed to be the oldest juvenile offender still incarcerated in the Michigan prison system.

■John Hall was 17 when convicted in a 1967 fatal beating in a Detroit alley during an armed robbery. No evidence linked Hall to the crime and he had an alibi defense for where he was at the time. His first trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted by a second jury, his attorney said, largely on testimony of two people who said they saw him and another man in the alley but could not identify the second man.

■Joseph Andrew Passeno, then 17, and a baby-faced Bruce Christopher Michaels Jr., then 16, were both convicted in the 1989 killing and robbery of Glenn and Wanda Tarr of Rochester Hills.

■Jonathan Belton was 16 when charged in the 2008 shooting death of Oak Park Police Officer Mason Samborski.

■Thomas Jay McCloud was 14 when arrested for the 2008 deaths of two homeless Pontiac men, beaten and kicked to death in separate incidents.

■Ihab Maslamani was 17 and Robert Taylor was 16 when arrested and later convicted in the 2009 fatal shooting of a Chesterfield Township man during a three-day Macomb County crime spree.

■Semaj Moran was arrested at 15 for shooting two women in Pontiac to death in 2012 after learning one of the victims had paid him for marijuana with a bogus $10 bill.