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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 WGVU News
Yesterday
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Decision 2014 profile: Michigan Senate 28th District
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West Michigan health protocols in place, ebola unlikely
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Decision 2014 Profile: Michigan House 92nd District
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Wednesday
Affleck makes video for Detroit-area bat group
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Creationism conference planned at Michigan State
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Decision 2014 Profile: Michigan Senate 30th District
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Decision 2014 Profile: Michigan House 86th District
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Decision 2014 Profile: Michigan House 88th District
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Decision 2014 Profile: Michigan House 72nd District
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GM to invest $63 million in Lansing-area car plant
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Ten people in Michigan being monitored for Ebola, but flu risk is greater
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Tuesday
Howell nature center says eagle may have been shot
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Amtrak Michigan line sets ridership record
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Decision 2014 profile: Michigan House 76th District
  October 28, 2014  |  WGVU  The field is crowded in the race for House seat in Michigan’s 76th District. Incumbent Democrat, Winnie Brinks, debated Republican challenger, Donijo DeJonge and U-S Taxpayer party candidate William Mohr on WGVU-TV.   
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Decision 2014 profile: Michigan House 91st District
  October 28, 2014  |  WGVU  Along the lakeshore in Muskegon’s 91st State House District a rematch … with a local third party candidate thrown in. In 2012, Democrat Collene Lamonte defeated Republican incumbent, Holly Hughes. Now she’s back seeking her old job. Former Muskegon County Commissioner Alan Jager is also making a run. The three candidates debated on WGVU-TV.   
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State funding helps West Michigan towns combine services
  October 28, 2014  |  WGVU  Department of Treasury grants received by Kent and Ottawa County municipalities goes toward consolidating local services.    
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Funds aim to boost rural economic development
EAST LANSING, Mich.  October 28, 2014  |  AP  Michigan State University is getting $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help boost economic development in rural areas.   
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Republicans plan bus tour to cap Michigan campaign
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Monday
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Michigan workplace fatality rate declines
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Governor's house becomes event venue under Snyder
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Grand Rapids Amtrak 'hub' open to travelers
  October 27, 2014  |  WGVU  Amtrak’s new Grand Rapids station honors a longtime West Michigan congressman. And as of this week, it’s open for business.    
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Decision 2014 profile: Michigan House 73rd District
  October 27, 2014  |  WGVU  One week from Tuesday voters head to the polls. This week WGVU profiles the candidates running for Michigan House and Senate seats. We introduce Republican Chris Afendoulis and Democrat, Mary Polonowski, who are running for the Michigan House in the 73rd District.    
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Decision 2014 profile: Michigan House 75th District
  October 27, 2014  |  WGVU  Tuesday, November 4th is Election Day. WGVU is profiling races across West Michigan all week long. In Michigan’s 75th District House of Representatives election incumbent Democrat, Brandon Dillon, debated Republican challenger, John Lohrstorfer on WGVU-TV.   
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Gov. Snyder directs state agencies to eliminate hurdles for disabled employees
  October 27, 2014  |  MPRN  Governor Rick Snyder is asking state departments to hire more people with disabilities. As Jake Neher reports, it’s part of an ongoing effort to promote employment in Michigan for the disabled.    
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