updated 12/8/2007 4:33:43 PM ET 2007-12-08T21:33:43

Five young offenders — serving life without parole for crimes committed in Kentucky while juveniles — have challenged that penalty, saying state law doesn’t allow it.

Their lawyers, part of a national push by youth advocates to re-examine life sentences for young offenders, hope to expand on a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 that invalidated the death penalty for juveniles.

“Kids are just different,” said Assistant Public Advocate Tim Arnold, who represents one of the five, Kevin Stanford. “We don’t just give up on them altogether. Life without parole says we’re giving up on them.”

Prosecutors don’t buy the argument. Chris Cohron, commonwealth’s attorney in Bowling Green, said when a crime is especially egregious, the offender’s age doesn’t matter. “There is a certain percentage of the population that just doesn’t need to be put back in society,” Cohron said.

Michelle Leighton, a University of San Francisco professor who has studied juvenile lifers, says, “Kentucky is at a turning point” on the issue.

Changes in sentencing law caused some of the uncertainty on whether juveniles can be sentenced to life without parole.

The Kentucky juvenile code, passed in 1986, allows life sentences, but with parole considered after 25 years. A sentence of life without parole was added to the adult criminal code in 1998 but not to the juvenile code; at the same time, however, prosecutors received more discretion to try those between 14 and 17 as adults for the most serious crimes.

The result: Juveniles tried as adults are receiving life without parole sentences that they would be ineligible for under the juvenile code.

High court ruling surrounds issue
In a separate but related issue, when the Supreme Court struck down executions for juvenile offenders, it determined that younger minds are still maturing, making it possible that they were less culpable for the crime than an adult and possibly more able to learn from an error and correct the behavior.

Charles “Robbie” Spencer, who had no prior criminal record, took part with a group of friends in killing two people off a back road in rural Laurel County. He was 17 at the time.

Like Sophal “Saggy” Phon, convicted of a 1996 killing in Bowling Green, and Montie Gussler, convicted of a double kidnapping and murder in 1986, Spencer took a plea and accepted life in prison rather than run the risk of landing on death row.

Before pleading guilty, each claimed he was not the main perpetrator of the crime. But, the pressure of avoiding a death sentence may have pushed them into accepting life without parole, Leighton said. By going to trial, each could have likely avoided both a death sentence and life without parole, Leighton said.

“In those instances, many attorneys believe the law would not have allowed life without parole,” Leighton said.

The cases of Stanford and Louis Lee Anderson are different.

Stanford was sentenced to death in 1982 at age 17 for the murder, rape and robbery of gas station clerk Barbel Poore in Louisville. His sentence was commuted by Gov. Paul Patton to life in prison without parole in 2003 because of the governor’s concerns about executing juveniles. Stanford is now challenging the sentence he received from the commutation.

“The way some courts view the law now, the sentence isn’t really a benefit to him,” said Arnold, his lawyer.

Anderson, now 19, entered a conditional guilty plea last month to the 2006 stabbing death and robbery of a 72-year-old school teacher in central Kentucky. As part of the deal, Anderson reserved the right to appeal a judge’s decision to hand down a life without parole sentence.

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