EXCLUSIVE: Ruling Could Free 84 Juveniles Serving Life Without Parole

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CAMERON - A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders eventually could yield the freedom of 84 Missouri inmates currently serving those sentences for crimes they committed before the age of 18.

Missouri is one of 29 states that, prior to the June decision, mandated life without parole sentences for both adults and juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Now forced to implement the ruling, Missouri's prosecutors, defense attorneys and attorney general are at odds over how to interpret it.

"Right now, we're kind of treading water to see how everything shakes out," said Kansas City-based criminal defense attorney John Picerno, who has defended juvenile defendants before.

"I imagine [the Missouri Public Defender's office] is going to have to file a suit first in Cole County, and then we'll see how that shakes out and what's happening. I'd like to think that [Mo. Attorney General Chris Koster] and the prosecuting attorneys around the state of Missouri are going to do the right thing and help to make sure that these children were sentenced appropriately," Picerno said.

The protocol for implementing the ruling evokes questions the Supreme Court, charged with deciding only if a law is constitutional, left unanswered. Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker hypothetically asked, "So does a new jury decide sentencing? Does a judge decide sentencing? Is it automatic that life without parole just becomes life with parole? Those are questions that we have to figure out. I think that probably the best course of action in these cases is to allow the Attorney General to move forward from a collective standpoint in just an interest of parity that we all get a better understanding of what the rule of law is going to be."

But Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster refused to answer these questions on or off camera, and instead, his office issued KOMU 8 a written statement: "The Attorney General's Office represents the state on any appeals filed. The office is taking the position that the decision does not apply retroactively," Koster's press secretary Nanci Gonder wrote.

The Missouri Public Defender's Office told KOMU 8 News it is interpreting the ruling differently and already has launched a more than $125,000 task of filing writs of habeas corpus for the 84 inmates--72 of whom are being contracted to private attorneys. The writs demand the state show justification for holding the inmates.

The office's deputy director, Dan Gralike, said, "We told [the inmates] it's gonna be a couple of years probably before we get any definitive relief, but we asked them to fill out a questionnaire for us and give us information about their cases. But overall, we're looking at a considerable expense in litigating these cases, and some type of state action in that regard would be something to consider."

State action is what Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad took in commuting the life without parole sentences of all of his state's 38 juvenile homicide offenders to life with the possibility of parole. A life-in-prison sentence in Iowa is 60 years, but in Missouri, it is 30.

For a murder he committed when he was 16, now-22-year-old Edward "Eddie" George, a Grain Valley native, is serving just such a life sentence without the possibility of parole, in addition to a consecutive 30-year armed criminal action sentence.

In an exclusive KOMU 8 News prison interview at Crossroads Correctional Facility in Cameron, George said, "There's not a day that goes by where I don't think about it and regret my decision. It was stupid. It was horrible. I mean, who does something like that, you know?"

In 2006, a jury convicted George for carrying out a scheme he admittedly pre-planned with his best friend Taylor Marquez--a plot that left Marquez's mother Pamela dead and her husband, assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Marquez, critically injured.

"I hurt lots of people, but I can't take it back. The best I can do is try to prove to everybody else that that's not me. It's kind of hard to do that. They don't give you a chance." George said.

Of the aftermath of the crime, George described, "I felt like I was going to get a slap on the wrist or something. I didn't realize the seriousness of what I had done. I didn't think, you know?"

This argument behind juvenile decision-making was the majority opinion's rationale behind the 5-4 Supreme Court decision delivered in June, which did not entirely rule out the imposing of a life without parole sentence for juveniles. Instead, the court encouraged judges and juries to consider "mitigating factors" before imposing the state's most severe single sentence.

The cases heard before the supreme court, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, involved 14-year-old homicide offenders, but the court's ruling would apply to everyone convicted younger than 18--including the 17-year-olds Missouri automatically deems and subsequently tries as adults.

For the majority, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, "By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment."

Peters Baker noted that the majority opinion's argument behind juvenile brain development and subsequent decision-making abilities is scientifically supported. "...It's a consideration that we always have in determining what the appropriate measure is to take in a particular case-what's the appropriate sentence to recommend regarding juveniles."

But, she emphasized, "There's a very big difference between a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old, and essentially, the court is saying that there is not."

Gralike argued, "The maturity levels are different, the opportunities for rehabilitation-they are not so set in their ways that they are beyond hope, and a life without parole sentence says that they are without hope, and we just don't think that that could be said universally about every juvenile."

Picerno, George's former trial defense attorney, agreed. "The Supreme Court has said that it is cruel and unusual punishment to hold a juvenile to the same standards as we do an adult. And I know it's not fair-after dealing with these kids...that they did not understand the nature and the consequences of their actions, and they deserve a chance to live a law-abiding life."

Under the ruling, George could have a new chance at a free life. The inmate, who said he loves his family and is proud of his recent admission into the prison's less-restrictive "Honor Dorm" for consistent good behavior, noted the court's ruling makes him slightly optimistic.

"I mean, it does give me hope and makes me feel like maybe someday I'll get out of prison," George said. Often, he said he is saddened by his inability to act as a brother to his two younger sisters. "It's devastating, you know? I can't be there to make sure they're doing what they should...or to scare off any of their boyfriends, you know? I can't. It breaks my heart not to be there for them, you know?"

But, George admitted he understands why both the supreme court dissenters and Peters Baker don't commend the ruling. Peters Baker said, "There is a victim on the other end of that equation, and what I frequently tell juries is that a decision was made for my victim, as well-that a victim in a case never gets to achieve their potential, they never have a chance to improve their life," she said.

Peters Baker added, "And so for cases like this, though we respect the Court's ruling, there are a series of victims that we have to reach out to, and it brings it all back for them... It is an incredibly tragic situation for a family to put in that [situation in which] they're going to get a phone call from their area prosecutor to give them the status of what's going to happen on their case now. And as soon as they think it's over, it's not over."

George admitted, "I'd be crushed if it was me in their seat, you know? And it if was somebody from my family that this happened to."

But, George argues he has undergone a change of heart amid his six cumulative years in both a county jail and maximum-security prison. "I was a follower. I surrounded myself with people that manipulated me and coerced me into doing stuff that I wouldn't have done, you know, if I had just stopped for five seconds and thought for myself."

He affirmed, "I'm not that person anymore, you know? I'm not who I was before I came here. I'm different, I'm changed. I think if given the chance, I could prove to anybody that I could be a productive member of society."

Gralike said, procedurally, the Missouri Public Defender's Office will file the writs of habeas corpus, which allege the juveniles are being held unconstitutionally, through the circuit courts in each of the seven Mo. counties in which the juveniles are incarcerated. He said the circuit courts will ask then the attorney general to show cause as to why relief shouldn't be granted under Miller.

"The attorney general, I suspect, will say it's not retroactive. Those circuit judges then, assuming that we all proceed in the circuit court, will then decide whether or not it is retroactive, and then that will be appealed either to the lower appellate court or the state supreme court."

In waiting for potential relief from a ruling that could take years to implement, George said he has advice for young adults who may be dabbling with trouble. "Think for yourself. Don't let anybody tell you what to do--unless it's your parents--but think about the consequences of your actions and quit doing the things you're doing. If you know they're hurtful to others, hurtful to you, don't do it. No matter what anybody says, don't follow anybody. Be your own person."

This supreme court ruling is the first involving juvenile homicide offenders since 2010, when the Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that imposing a life without parole sentence on a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide crime was unconstitutional. Five years before, in the Missouri-based Roper v. Simmons case, the Supreme Court declared the issuing the of the death penalty to minors was unconstitutional.