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Michigan Supreme Court to decide fate of 350 juvenile lifers


March 6, 2014 | MPRN  Governor Rick Snyder just signed a new law this week to update Michigan’s sentencing policies to reflect that Supreme Court decision. But that doesn’t settle what happens to Matthew Bentley.

“I was 15 years old and being in a rush to be a man. I made a mistake and now 14 years later I’m still in prison, missing out on everything I was in a rush to get.”

That is Bentley from a podcast provided by the American Civil Liberties Union. He shot and killed a woman during a break-in at her home. He says he would take it all back if he could.

“I sometimes think about what could have happened, what could have been different. There’s a possibility I could have went down a different path, had I gotten some better advice, had I been shown a better way, had I actually had a role model.” 

Because of the US Supreme Court decision, juveniles convicted of murder or aiding and abetting in a murder now must have a hearing that takes into account their circumstances – abuse or neglect, how culpable they were in the crime, things like that. The court said the absence of that made automatic life without parole for juveniles cruel and unusual punishment.

Now, the ACLU and three juvenile lifers are suing the state. They say if automatic life without parole is unconstitutional going forward, then that same logic should apply to those earlier 350-plus cases, some of which date back to the early 1960s.

Kimberly Thomas is a law professor with the University of Michigan’s Juvenile Justice Clinic. She says we’ve learned a lot in recent years about shortcomings in how the legal system deals with juveniles. She says teenagers are often poor clients.

“It’s hard to get them to understand the choices that they’re making. Especially when faced with what might be good plea bargains, they just aren’t making good choices.”

Thomas says representing minors is a unique set of skills that most defense attorneys just don’t have. And she says the proof of that is how often juveniles get tougher sentences than adults involved in the same murders, even when the juvenile was only an accessory to the crime.    

The decision in this case before the state Supreme Court will likely turn on a legal nuance.

To win, the juvenile lifers have to show the US Supreme Court decision represents a substantive change in their legal rights. The state, on the other hand, is arguing that it’s not – that this was a procedural decision. It has no bearing on their guilt or innocence, and that means there’s no responsibility to go back and correct their sentences.

But this is not a nuance for another group of people closely following this case.

“We’re the innocent, and we deserve some kind of closure to this…”

Jody Robinson’s brother was murdered by a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old. And she says don’t call that a “mistake.” Robinson gets angry, visibly upset, when she hears that teens are sentenced to –quote- “die” in prison.

“They weren’t sentenced to die – period. They were sentenced to live the rest of their life in prison. They’re living. They’re not dead, and there’s a big difference between the two.”

Robinson says families like hers will never get their loved ones back -- and changing the rules now would deny them the measure of peace that once came with finality in their cases.

For the Michigan Public Radio Network, I’m Rick Pluta in Lansing  
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More Mid-Day Features
Yesterday
Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio Releases New CD
  September 19, 2014  |  WGVU  Drummer Gerry Gibbs is back with his Thrasher Dream Trio featuring masters Ron Carter on bass and Kenny Barron at the piano. The album "We're Back" is a collection of 1970's popular songs given a jazz treatment.    
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The Maze Runner plus three other new movies open today
  September 19, 2014  |  WGVU  Four new movies opening in theaters today, including the science fiction flick The Maze Runner, an ensemble comedy This Is Where I Leave You, a new Liam Neeson thriller A Walk Among Tombstones and the horror comedy Tusk. Ron Van Timmeran from Celebration Cinema sits down with WGVU for our weekly movie talk.   
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West Michigan U.S. Representatives vote no on arming Syrian rebels
  September 19, 2014  |  WGVU  Congress is clearing the way for the U.S. military to train and equip Syrian rebels in their war against Islamic State militants. The Senate voted 78-22 ratifying a new strategy. The House approved the bill on Wednesday.   
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Wednesday
MiBiz with Mark Sanchez
  September 17, 2014  |  WGVU  Muskegon County is on the "Way to Wellville" creating greater access to health care with a little help from Hartford, Conn.-based Health Initiative Coordinating Council.   
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Monday
2014 World Liesure College asks what makes Grand Rapids a livable city?
  September 15, 2014  |  WGVU  The 2014 World Leisure Congress is being held for the first time in the United States. It’s mission is enhancing the human condition. Steve Heacock, senior vice president of public affairs at Spectrum Health, was invited to Mobile, Alabama where he spoke about building a livable city.   
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Andy Bey sings standards and Sammy Figueroa visits pan Latin sounds
  September 15, 2014  |  WGVU  The prolific High Note and Savant record labels have released two new vocal CDs...pianist and singer Andy Bey has an album of standards and Latin percussionist Sammy Figueroa presents a variety of pan-Latin sounds.    
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Friday
Study: Religious affiliation a plus for stores
Grand Rapids MI  September 12, 2014  |  WGVU  A just released study authored by a Grand Valley State University Marketing Professor finds a thought provoking connection between shopping and religion.   
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Movie Talk
  September 12, 2014  |  WGVU  We preview four new movies opening this weekend including "Dolphin Tale 2", "The Drop", "No Good Deed" and "Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt".   
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Thursday
New clinic offers dental services for low-income residents
  September 11, 2014  |  WGVU  The new Kent County South Clinic repurposes the site of a former library into a dual medical and dental care center for thousands of local, low-income residents. Today on WGVU Midday West Michigan, WGVU talks with Pearline Bailey of the Michigan Community Dental Clinics about how the non-profit fits into the picture.    
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