Above: Zerious Meadows’ sister Pamela Davenport comments on her brother’s 47 year incarceration, since the age of 15.
Case is key challenge for state’s juvenile lifers
Defense attorney Melvin Houston: state statutes do not require 60-year max, judges should have more flexibility in sentencing
Meadows’ family attends hearing in his support: “I just want him to be strong”
U.S. District Court Judge O’Meara dismisses Hill case, after first ruling that state juvenile lifers should be eligible for parole after 10 years
By Diane Bukowski
March 23, 2017
DETROIT – “It makes me sick, I’ve had nightmares that I’m behind prison bars ever since I was eight or nine years old,” Pamela Davenport said March 14 after an appeals court hearing in the case of her oldest brother, Zerious “Bobby” Meadows.
Meadows was sent to die in prison when he was 16 years old, in 1971. He is now 63 years old and has spent 47 years behind bars. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy appealed Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Morrow’s re-sentencing of Meadows to 25-45 years, which would have allowed his immediate release. She is insisting he must receive a maximum of 60 years under her interpretation of state juvenile lifer re-sentencing statutes.
Davenport accompanied her husband Dee Davenport, her sister Beverly Lucas, and another relative to the hearing at the Cadillac Place Center on W. Grand Blvd. She said Meadows is the second oldest of eight siblings.
Judge Bruce Morrow re-sentenced Meadows to 25 to 45 years on Sept. 23, 2016. Since Meadows had already served the time, his family expected to welcome him back home immediately. Even Chief Criminal Court Judge Timothy Kenny signed off on the sentence.
“My client is staying in prison right now rather than going before the parole board, trying to make sure everyone else is helped by the outcome of his case,” Attorney Melvin Houston told Appeals Court Judges Michael J. Kelly, William B. Murphy and Amy Ronayne during the hearing. “Everyone is just taking 25-60 year sentences like it’s candy.”
He argued the state statutes do not require an absolute maximum of 60 years, but “up to 60 years.”
Numerous prominent officials including former Wayne County Prosecutor John O’Hair and former Governor William Milliken have contended that an absolute 60-year maximum is tantamount to another death in prison sentence.
“With the average life expectancy of a juvenile serving life without parole at 50.6 years, 40 and 60 years sentences are virtual life sentences,” O’Hair said in a Detroit Free Press column last year. He referred to life expectancies current at the time many juvenile lifers were sentenced over 40 years ago.
Houston and Meadows’ family members said he has always maintained that he is innocent of tossing a Molotov cocktail into an east side Detroit home in 1970, killing 12-year-old Ruth Turner and her four-year-old sister Regina. The conviction and life sentence of his co-defendant Cornelius Fuller was thrown out by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1980, citing lack of evidence.
Family members said Houston has gone before the parole board before, but always refused to say he is guilty even if it meant his release.
“He says, ‘I’m not leaving out of here saying I’m guilty,’” said Attorney Houston. “If he winds up before the parole board, they will not be welcoming. The state statutes do not allow enough flexibility for judges to determine the appropriate sentence.”
Attorney Melvin Houston arguments on behalf of Zerious Meadows.
Since former Michigan Gov. John Engler made the parole board subject to appointment rather than civil service procedures, it has become much more rigid about releases. It usually insists that prisoners admit to the crime(s) with which they are charged.
Houston added that under a 1980 Michigan Supreme Court ruling, People v. Aaron, intent has to be proven in cases of felony murder, where commission of a felony like arson leads to a death. However, the state court did not make its ruling retroactive. He said there was no intent to kill proven in Meadows’ case.
According to news reports at the time, the case against Meadows was earlier dismissed during a juvenile court hearing, after two adults testified he was elsewhere with them during the arson. The prosecutor reinstated the charges in adult court. The chief witness against him in Recorders Court was originally arrested for the crime, then released after agreeing to testify.
Meadows was tried in 1971 before Visiting Judge Karl Zick of Berrien County, but his conviction was thrown out on appeal after Zick refused to allow the defense to bring up the witness’ criminal record.
Zick, who was taking part in a state-wide rotation of judges into Detroit Recorders Court to clear up a backlog, said afterwards, “I’m very happy to be back in God’s country. I wouldn’t be a circuit judge in Detroit if they paid me $50,000 a year.”
Meadows was not released after his first conviction was thrown out, but tried again in 1975 in a possible violation of double jeopardy rules. His attorney Arthur Arduin (also the original defense attorney for juvenile lifer Charles Lewis) evidently did not challenge the re-trial.
Lewis, who like Meadows has always contended he is innocent, commented earlier during a court hearing, “Ninety percent of juvenile lifers are in prison because they had bad attorneys.” He also said he believes at least 10 percent of juvenile lifers are innocent. Under the state re-sentencing statutes, there is no provision to take innocence into account.
Meadows’ sentencing judge Susan Borman said she did not believe Meadows had any intent to kill anyone, characterizing the incident as a neighborhood dispute that got out of hand.
“I really don’t feel that there should be every door slammed shut on a sixteen-year-old, Judge Borman said at the time. “. . . .I think that there is something wrong with the law that gives the court no discretion at all. Where the defendant has to spend the rest of his natural life behind bars, and it is particularly tragic in a case where it is a sixteen-year-old child that has been convicted.”
Very few of Michigan’s 360-plus juvenile lifers have been released since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they were serving unconstitutional sentences, in Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016). Some have been re-sentenced, but still await either parole board hearings or decisions.
Others still await re-sentencing. The case of Cortez Davis El was one of three in which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) unsuccessfully challenged appeals court rulings that Miller was not retroactive, before the Michigan Supreme Court. The USSC weighed in with the Montgomery v. Louisiana, ruling unequivocably that Miller was indeed retroactive.
Davis El’s re-sentencing is set for April 27 at 9 a.m. in front of Judge Shannon Walker. His sentencing judge, Vera Massey Jones, retired from the bench in 2015. She originally said sentencing Davis to life without parole in 1994 was “cruel and unusual punishment,” 18 years before the USSC held that indeed it was. She sentenced him to a lesser term but was forced by an appeals court to sentence him to JLWOP. Later, in 2012, Judge Massey Jones scheduled a re-sentencing for Davis El under Miller v. Alabama, but was blocked by an appeal from Prosecutor Worthy again.
Davis El is 40, and has been in prison since 1994, 22 years, serving an unconstitutional sentence. Since state statutes currently require minimums of 25-40 years, he will not have served enough time to become eligible for parole immediately.
In an Oakland County case, Jennifer Pruitt, 16 when sent to prison in 1992 for first-degree felony murder, was re-sentenced to 30 to 60 years on March 2, 2017. She was not the killer in the case. She remains incarcerated in the notorious Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility, where she was raped by a guard, and will not be eligible for parole until 2022.
In the vast majority of cases statewide, county prosecutors have ignored a USSC declaration that “only the rarest” child should be sentenced to life without parole, and are re-recommending that sentence for up to 100 percent of their cases.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has re-recommended JLWOP for 40 percent of cases here, but the actual number is the highest in the state because Wayne County has the highest number of juvenile lifers.
In a severe blow to the state’s juvenile lifers, U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O’Meara dismissed the Michigan ACLU’s Hill v. Snyder case Feb. 7, 2017, after first ruling in 2013 that all Michigan juvenile lifers should be subject to parole after serving 10 years. The ACLU prevailed on the state’s first appeal, after the Sixth Circuit sent the decision back to Corbett O’Meara for tweaking.
The ACLU challenged the 2014 state statutes requiring minimums of 25-40 years and maximums of 60 years during subsequent hearings, as well as a provision that “good time” could not be taken into account for juvenile lifers.
O’Meara did an about-face in his opinion, granting the state’s motion to dismiss the case. He said saying the plaintiffs could not challenge “impending sentences” or cite the Eighth Amendment in their arguments.
“In Counts II and IV, Plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of the sentencing scheme set forth in M.C.L. 769.25 and 769.25a,” O’Meara said. “In Count II, Plaintiffs contend that a life without parole sentence for juveniles categorically violates the Eighth Amendment. In Count IV, Plaintiffs contend that the maximum sentence provided in the statute – 60 years – is the equivalent of life in prison and violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. In other words, Plaintiffs challenge their impending sentences.”
O’Meara called the challenge to impending sentences “untenable.” He added, “The Supreme Court has made clear that a “prisoner in state custody cannot use a § 1983 action to challenge ‘the fact or duration of his confinement.’ He must seek federal habeas corpus relief (or appropriate state relief) instead.’
The Eighth Amendment forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” and was cited by the USSC in both Miller and Montgomery. “42 U.S. Code § 1983” is a “civil action for deprivation of rights.”
O’Meara also refused to allow juvenile lifers consideration of their “good time,” which the plaintiffs had contended was being discriminatorily denied to them under the state statutes.
On its website, the Michigan Department of Corrections defines good time as “Days subtracted from certain prisoners’ sentences for good behavior, required under Michigan law unless the prisoner has violated prison rules; it escalates from 5 days a month to 15 days a month on very long sentences. An additional one-half of regular good time can also be earned for exemplary behavior. Prisoners sentenced for crimes committed after April 1, 1987, do not earn good time.”
A representative from the law offices of Deborah LaBelle, the attorney representing the Michigan ACLU in Hill v. Snyder, told VOD, “We DEFINITELY are appealing O’Meara’s ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.’
For Judge O’Meara’s complete ruling, go to http://voiceofdetroit.net/wp-content/uploads/Hill-dismissal-order-2-7-17.pdf.
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