by Necalli Ollin
"Government improprieties should not find an oasis within the court system." (Robert M. Bloom, "Judicial Integrity: A Call for Its Re-Emergence in the Adjudication of Criminal Cases," 84 J. Crim. l. & Criminology 462, 501 (1993)
The Michigan Supreme Court issued an important ruling January 17, 2020 in the case of People v. Tykeith Turner, 2020 Mich. LEXIS 99, which will impact dozens of prisoners previously sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) when they were juveniles ("juvenile lifers").
In 1995, Tykeith Turner, a 16-year-old from Detroit, was convicted of first-degree murder, assault with intent to commit murder (AWIM), and carrying a firearm during the commission of a felony (felony-firearm), for his role in a drive-by shooting that killed a man. He shot at another person and missed during the same incident, according to court records.
For the crimes Turner was originally sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder, life in prison with the possibility of parole for AWIM, and a term of two years' imprisonment for felony-firearm.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 465 (2012), "that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments.'"
Four years later, in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that Miller must be applied retroactively. (Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 736 (2016)). Because Turner received a sentence of mandatory life without parole for his first-degree murder conviction, he was entitled to resentencing.
When returning to the trial court for resentencing in 2016 Turner requested to be sentenced for both the first-degree murder and the AWIM charges. He argued that his entire sentence was invalid since both his charges were part of a single event, and the U.S. Supreme Court had determined that the mandatory life-without-parole sentence was unconstitutional.
It also made no sense that Turner could be resentenced for the charge he originally received the most time for (first-degree murder) and receive a lesser sentence for that charge when resentenced than for the sentence he was serving for the lesser charge of AWIM.
The trial court noted that, although speculative, Turner's sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole for AWIM could negate Miller and Montgomery because Turner could serve his full prison term for first-degree murder but be denied parole for AWIM.
Lastly, the trial court agreed that the sentences Turner received were invalid based on a misconception of the law, and went on to resentence Turner to 25 to 60 years' imprisonment for first-degree murder, and 20 to 27 years' imprisonment for AWIM.
The Wayne County Prosecutor subsequently appealed the trial court's new sentence for AWIM. In 2018 a three judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals heard the appeal and rendered a new judgment in the case.
Justices Peter D. O'Connell, Joel P. Hoekstra, and Kirsten Frank Kelly agreed with the prosecution and reversed the new 20-year sentence imposed on Turner by the trial court for AWIM. They also reinstated a life in prison with the possibility of parole sentence for the charge.
After a three year court battle, January 17, 2020 the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the 2018 judgment by the Court of Appeals stating in relevant part:
"A sentence is invalid if it is 'based upon ... a misconception of law ... .' People v. Miles, 454 Mich. 90, 96; 559 N.W.2d 299 (1997). In the Miller context, a concurrent sentence for a lesser offense is invalid if there is reason to believe that it was based on a legal misconception that the defendant was required to serve a mandatory sentence of life without parole on the greater offense."
The state's high court also remanded the Turner case back to the Wayne County Circuit Court to reinstate the December 21, 2016 judgment of sentence of 25 to 60 years' imprisonment for first-degree murder and 20 to 27 years' imprisonment for AWIM.
Among the Michigan juvenile lifers impacted by the new Michigan Supreme Court ruling who remain entangled in the lengthy resentencing process is Efrén Paredes, Jr. of Berrien County. The invalid sentence he received was even more egregious than one received by Turner.
Efrén was 15-years-old at the time of his arrest. He was convicted three months later and received two life in prison without parole sentences for the shooting death and robbery of a store manager. He also received a life in prison with the possibility of parole sentence for the charge of armed robbery. The sentencing guidelines for the robbery charge were three to eight years at the time.
Efrén's case is the subject of the 2019 documentary film installation titled "Half Truths and Full Lies" produced by award-winning filmmakers Tirtza Even, Meg McLagan, and multimedia producer Elyse Blennerhassett. His case was also featured in the 2015 documentary film "Natural Life" produced by Tirtza Even.
For over three decades Efrén has proclaimed his innocence. Four alibi witnesses have corroborated he was home with his family when the crime occurred. Witnesses have also come forward stating under oath that some of the prosecution's witnesses provided false statements to police and offered perjured testimony at his trial.
Despite the evidence exonerating Efrén that continues to mount in his case he must still go through the same process to be resentenced as the other 366 Michigan juvenile lifers. Innocence is not an issue that courts generally consider during juvenile lifer resentencing hearings, though in a recent Wayne County case it did.
Efrén has accomplished numerous things during his incarceration. He helped create a charter school in the Los Angeles Unified School District; co-founded Presente.org, the largest online Latinx social justice organizing digital platform; and has worked tirelessly on issues such as prison reform and raising awareness about mass incarceration.
There are 200 remaining Michigan juvenile lifers awaiting their day in court aching for the opportunity to one day realize freedom again. Like Efrén, the vast majority of them are not "irreparably corrupt" or "incapable of change," and are deserving of term-of-year sentences -- not life in prison without the possibility of parole.
This is the standard for resentencing juvenile lifers plainly stated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark rulings dates back to 2012 when it counseled sentencing bodies against imposing the draconian sentence stating:
"Deciding that a juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society would require making a judgment that [he] is incorrigible -- but incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth and for the same reason, rehabilitation could not justify that sentence.
"Life without parole foreswears the rehabilitative ideal. It reflects an irrevocable judgment about [an offender's] value and place in society, at odds with a child's capacity for change." (Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2465 (2012))
Before abolishing mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders in 2012 the nation's high court made a ruling in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), mandating that non-incorrigible juvenile offenders should receive a meaningful opportunity for release.
In his peer-reviewed academic journal article titled, "A Meaningful Opportunity for Release: Graham and Miller Applied to De Facto Sentences of Life Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders," 60 B.C. L. Rev. E. Supp. 332, 348 (2019), Anton Tikhomirov writes:
"Graham's concern with the limitations of a life-without-parole sentence, combined with its focus on a defendant's ability to achieve self-fulfillment clearly demonstrates an intent that non-incorrigible juveniles have an opportunity to participate in society beyond living out the last few years of their lives following release."
He added, "To realize Graham's mandate of a 'meaningful opportunity for release,' one must be afforded 'hope' and a chance of 'fulfillment outside prison walls,' 'reconciliation with society,' and 'the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential." (Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 79 (2010))
Decision-makers are abusing their power and undermining U.S. Supreme Court rulings resulting in time-consuming and costly appeals at taxpayer expense. Their actions are steadily eroding public confidence and trust, and impugning the integrity of the criminal justice system.
The public cannot be expected to respect or adhere to institutions that are not impartial and lacking integrity. Instead, they will begin to reject them. In the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis:
"For good or for ill, [the Government] teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy." (Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 485 (Brandeis, L., dissenting) (1928))
Over 100 juvenile lifers in Michigan have been resentenced and released in the past few years. Of that number not a single one has reoffended or returned to prison. They have been receiving average sentences of 29.5 years when being resentenced and many of them have spent decades behind bars.
Michigan has earned the dubious distinction of becoming the state with the highest number of juvenile lifers in the country. It has done so while twenty-eight states have abandoned the extreme death-by-incarceration sentence.
The number of states banning the sentence has quadrupled in the last five years. ("States That Ban Life Without Parole for Children," The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, available at https://fairsentencingofyouth.org/media-resources/states-that-ban-life/.)
It is long past time that juvenile lifers like Efrén and the other remaining 200 people languishing in Michigan prisons with unconstitutional sentences the past eight years receive their new sentences and we end this chapter of injustice.
(To learn more about the case of Efrén Paredes, Jr. people can visit http://Bitly.com/FreeEfren or http://fb.com/Free.Efren.)