In Hill v. Snyder, 6th Circuit rejects state statutes, calls for “meaningful and realistic opportunity for release” for all state juvenile lifers

Michigan officials including AG Bill Schuette, Wayne Co. Prosecutor Kym Worthy have opposed ANY relief for children sent to die in prison

Michissippi GODDAM (variation of Nina Simone’s song)

By Diane Bukowski

May 18, 2016

Henry Hill, Jr., lead plaintiff in Hill v. Snyder

Henry Hill, Jr., lead plaintiff in Hill v. Snyder; most juvenile lifers are Black men

DETROIT—Over 364 residents of Michigan’s prisons sentenced to die there for crimes committed as children advanced another step towards freedom May 11. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that “a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release” must be accorded to every juvenile lifer in Michigan, beyond what is allowed by state statutes passed in 2014.

The Sixth Circuit ruling, in the case of Hill v. Snyder, follows two U.S. Supreme Court decisions declaring juvenile life without parole “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore unconstitutional (Miller v. Alabama), and that the Miller decision is retroactive to ALL juvenile lifers (Montgomery v. Louisiana.) 

The U.S. Supreme Court said in Montgomery, “Although Miller did not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to impose life without parole on a juvenile, the Court explained that a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children, those whose crimes reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’”

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to death in prison. A young Mexican resident of Detroit’s southwest side expressed horror to this writer when told that children in the U.S. face such penalties. Michigan is one of only four states that continued to insist that Miller was not retroactive, and has the second highest per capita population of juvenile lifers in the states.

Judge Bernice Donald

Judge Bernice Donald

Judge Jane Stranch

Judge Jane Stranch

Judge Gilbert Merritt

Judge Gilbert Merritt

“We vacate the [U.S. District] court’s prior orders to enable the court to address remedies in the context of the new legal landscape and because it is necessary in light of our instructions to allow the parties leave to amend the pleadings,” ordered Sixth Circuit Senior Judge Gilbert Merritt with Judges Jane Stranch and Bernice Donald.  “If, for example, plaintiffs file a second amended complaint directly challenging Michigan’s 2014 legislative fixes, there may be no question that the eight plaintiffs the district court previously dismissed are entitled to pursue such a claim.”

OMearaboxThe Sixth Circuit also suggested that U.S. District Court Judge Corbett O’Meara, who ruled Nov. 26, 2013 that all Michigan juvenile lifers are eligible for parole after serving 10 years, might want to formalize the class action status of his ruling, even though it is not legally necessary.

The state has continued to insist that it only applied to the eight plaintiffs, Henry Hill, Jemal Tipton, Damion Todd, Bobby Hines, Kevin Boyd, Bosie Smith, Jennifer Pruitt, Matthew Bentley, Keith Maxey, Giovanni Casper, Jean Carlos Cintront, Nicole DuPure, and Dontez Tillman.

“This recent Sixth Circuit Court opinion is great news,” said Edward Sanders of Detroit, who has been incarcerated for 41 years since 1976 at the age of 17, for a drive-by killing in which he was not the shooter. “It noted that the U.S. District Court Judge did a very good job. It sent the case back before that court to allow the parties to start over with filing new briefs.

“We can now address concerns we may have with the [state statutes],” Sanders continued. “This is a good thing to start over again and with the same judge. The State should have moved on this matter long ago.”

Michigan’s legislature passed MCL 769.25a in 2014 in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court declared Miller retroactive. The statute said in part, “prosecutors in each county have 180 days from the date of the retroactivity decision to file a motion seeking re-imposition of LWOP in selected cases. If they do not file such a motion, the defendant must be re-sentenced to a minimum term of 25 to 40 years, with a maximum term set at 60 years. Prisoners who have served more than 20 years are given priority for re-sentencing. See http://voiceofdetroit.net/wp-content/uploads/Juvenile-lifers-mcl-769-25a.pdf.

Deborah LaBelle is the attorney who with the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union first brought the Hill v. Snyder lawsuit in the Eastern District of Michigan federal court in 2010.

Juvenile lifer Edward Sanders

Juvenile lifer Edward Sanders

“After Montgomery, the state moved to dismiss their appeal [of O’Meara’s ruling] in the Sixth Circuit, arguing that the issue was now moot, as they had cured the unconstitutional sentences with the legislation, which now took effect . . . ” she told VOD.

“We said that the legislation did not cure the constitutional violations found by Judge O’Meara and was not an appropriate remedy . . .  the Sixth Circuit’s order is pretty much what we requested.  They recognized that his [O’Meara’s] ruling applied to all youth (and said if the state disagreed he should consider certifying the class),  returned the case to Judge O’Meara to decide what needed to be done to actually provide a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release as required by Montgomery and Miller.  They specifically allowed us to amend the complaint to add our claims that the [state] statute is unconstitutional.”

LaBelle said the plaintiffs are considering one amendment in particular, given that Judge O’Meara ordered the parole process instead of re-sentencing.

Attorney Deborah LaBelle

Attorney Deborah LaBelle

“Michigan has a parole process, albeit one that the District Court agreed was flawed absent some changes to address the unique requirements for youth entitled to second chances– with Miller factors guiding the appropriate punishment,” she noted. “I think a separate or extended parole board is the answer— without the public hearing mechanism, as [the current parole process] does not give anyone a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release. This is what needs to be developed.”

In another development in the case of juvenile lifer Charles Lewis, VOD discovered that the U. S. Supreme Court vacated his sentence and remanded it to the Michigan Supreme Court for re-consideration under the Montgomery decision, effective April 6. On April 8, the state Supreme Court website indicates that court issued a “miscellaneous” order,  with no linked document, but the website goes on to reiterate that his case is closed.

Lewis had filed a state appeal of his sentence after the Miller decision, but it was rejected due to the state’s claim at the time that Miller was not retroactive. VOD has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the April 8 MSC order, as well as other related documents. (A separate story on Lewis’ unique case is forthcoming shortly. He has another post-conviction hearing scheduled for May 26, 2016 at 9 a.m. in front of Judge Qiana Lillard.)

Juvenile lifer Charles Lewis

Juvenile lifer Charles Lewis

Sanders sadly noted earlier that Michigan’s second-longest serving juvenile lifer, Rogers Walker of Detroit, passed after being incarcerated since 1965 and surviving cancer. He said they were in prison together during a stretch at Lapeer.

“He was hoping to go home after the U.S. Supreme Court [Miller] ruling,” said Sanders, “but Allah knows best. From Allah we come, to Allah we return.”

Walker’s death emphasized the cruelty of the  lengthy process to which the State of Michigan has subjected its juvenile lifers. They at first celebrated after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed their sentences, but have been in limbo since.

VOD requested comments from Michigan Attorney General (AG) Bill Schuette and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan last week regarding the Sixth Circuit Hill v. Snyder decision but has received no response. It was last reported that county prosecutors had already begun the process described in the state statutes, which have now been invalidated. The state has filed no appeal to date of the Sixth Circuit order.

Maria Miller of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s office deferred comment on the Sixth Circuit order to the Attorney General, and declined to comment on the Lewis case because it is “still in litigation.”

Related documents:

Sixth Circuit order Hill v. Snyder 5/11/16:


Judge O’Meara’s order Hill v. Snyder 11/28/13:


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#StopJWLOP, #SaveOurChildren, #PrisonNation, #MassIncarceration, #SchooltoPrisonPipeline, #Breakdownthewalls, #Beatbackthebullies, #Blacklivesmatter, #BlacklivesmatterDetroit, #Blackkidslivesmatter#StandUpNow, #StopWaronBlackAmerica, #StopWaronourYouth, #Michissippigoddam

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