Missouri murderer hopeful new SCOTUS decision will free him
COLUMBIA — The Southeast Missourian's front-page headline read, "Shot Grandmother: Teenager's sentences in killing sustained" on Wednesday, October 30, 2002.
Farther down on the page it explained, "A state appeals court upheld the convictions of a teenager who murdered his grandmother and later attempted to burn down their Jackson home in order to cover up the crime."
It was a heinous crime and, at the time of the offense, then 16-year-old Joshua Allen Wolf was going to have to pay the price for his actions.
Sentenced to two concurrent life sentences plus seven years for the May 6, 2000 shooting death of Carol Jean Lindley and related crimes, his fate seemed decided.
The court wrote, "He will never be eligible for parole."
On January 25, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 in Montgomery v. Louisiana, in favor of eliminating life without parole sentences for juveniles.
Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, "Prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored."
Montgomery v. Louisiana decided mandatory life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders violates the 8th Amendment on "cruel and unusual punishment."
So, what does this mean for Missouri?
KOMU 8 News reached out to Missouri State Public Defender Greg Mermelstein to find out. Mermelstein is the deputy director of specialty practices and resources specializing in juvenile work.
Mermelstein said the ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana has reaffirmed that more than 80 Missouri inmates sentenced to life in prison as teenagers could have a chance at freedom.
Mermelstein said, "In Montgomery, the Supreme Court held that juveniles who have been sentenced to life without parole in the past are entitled to have either a sentencing hearing or entitled to be considered for parole eligibility."
But there is a problem...
"Sen. Bob Dixon said Missouri has no alternative sentence that's constitutional for minors convicted of first-degree murder other than life in prison without parole," according to the Associated Press.
Missouri law says the penalty for first-degree murder must be death or life in prison without parole. The Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons forbids executing juveniles, and the Miller v. Alabama decision in 2012 outlaws automatic life sentences for youthful offenders. There's the catch.
Mermelstein explained, Missouri is in a temporary state of limbo when it comes to sentencing. Juveniles convicted on first degree murder can no longer be given life without parole, which was the state's previous sentence.
As a result, the Missouri Supreme Court, the Attorney General's office and state lawmakers are scrambling to put a sentence in place that meets the new Constitutional standard.
Mermelstein said, "Now that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that these juveniles are entitled either to a new sentencing proceeding or entitled to a parole hearing, I think the Missouri Supreme Court is going to have to decide what, if anything, is the Missouri Supreme Court is going to give them."
What's next for Wolf?
As for Wolf, he has spent 16 years in prison and is now 30 years old.
Wolf has filed various pleadings and will await his fate alongside 83 other Missouri inmates from around the state.
At the last minute, Wolf and his lawyer Nancy McKerrow backed out of an interview with KOMU 8 News because of "new developments" in his case.
However, Wolf wrote KOMU 8 a four page letter outlining his views on life without parole sentences.
Wolf wrote, "I do believe life without parole (LWOP) is too harsh for a juvenile. First, Miller consistently referred to juveniles as children. Sentencing a child to LWOP means you are sentencing a child to die in an adult maximum security prison with no hope of release regardless of the type of human being he matures into."
How has Wolf's family reacted?
Wolf also discussed in the letter his family's support throughout his rehabilitation process.
In the letter Wolf wrote to KOMU 8, he mentioned his grandfather (Papa), Bill Lindley's, unwavering support.
Wolf wrote, "I am not sure if you are aware of my grandfather's unconditional love and support of me. It was his wife that was killed when I was sixteen. Even though my crime was directly against him, he still chose to extend unconditional love, forgiveness, and support to me to such a degree that he hired private attorneys to fight for me. Papa wanted me to receive help instead of being punished with incarceration."
Lindley told Hebert in an over-the-phone interview he believes Wolf has made great progress and thinks he is ready to be released from prison.
Lindley said, "I have forgiven Joshua."
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