State appeals panel considers if juries can give teens life without parole
Lansing — The question of whether juries, not trial judges, have the sole authority to sentence teens to life without parole for first-degree murder landed Wednesday in the Michigan appeals court, which is seeking to settle conflicting opinions among appellate judges.
In a rare hearing, a special panel of seven judges convened to hear arguments in a Flint murder case that could have implications across Michigan.
A three-judge panel set a key precedent last year in ruling 2-1 that juries must decide whether someone under 18 gets a no-parole sentence, based on a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that barred sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without parole. A different set of judges had to apply the precedent to the Flint case in January but firmly disagreed in a 3-0 ruling.
Genesee County assistant prosecuting attorney Joseph Sawka told the conflict resolution panel that a 2014 Michigan law enacted in response to one of the Supreme Court rulings appropriately authorizes judges to impose a no-parole sentence for juvenile killers after considering various factors and only if the prosecution requests the sentence rather than the default term of at least 25 years to a maximum of 60 years.
Judges can consider mitigating factors in sentencing because they are “not something a prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Timothy Baughman, a special assistant prosecuting attorney for Wayne County representing the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.
But Kimberly Thomas, representing the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, said the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly ruled that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt the facts that would increase a defendant’s maximum sentence.
Some of the judges questioned how jurors would be instructed on determining whether teens should receive no-parole sentences. Thomas said that under the Supreme Court decisions, only those juveniles shown to be “irreparably corrupt” could be given such a sentence.
Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens expressed concern that “unconscious implicit biases” could result in even more life-without-parole sentences for teens in a state that already has the second-most juvenile lifers in the country.
It is unclear when the panel will rule.
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