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Life without parole: Too harsh for juveniles?

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to death is unconstitutional, advocates have been nudging lawmakers, courts and the public to go one step further and re-examine the life sentences given to young people.
Maria Chavira, Michael Lee Perry
Maria Chavira holds a portrait of her son Michael Lee Perry taken when he was 16, the same year he killed three children. He was sentenced to life in prison, though he appeals for the understanding he says the boy he once was still deserves. Adam Bird / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It began as a feud only a child could invent — teenage chest-thumping over who had the right to sneak across a golf course after dark and scoop lost balls out of a pond.

But by the time it ended in the pre-dawn blackness of a long-ago June morning, that juvenile bravado had exploded into a crime whose horror defied adult comprehension.

Buried inside the charred skeleton of a Saginaw home, three children lay dead. They perished at the hands of two local teens who hurled pop-bottle firebombs through the windows so one could settle a petty score.

For taking three innocent lives, a judge decided, Michael Lee Perry had to pay. Perry was 16 at the time of the fire, but for an adult crime he’d have to do adult time — and spend the rest of his life in prison, without any chance for parole.

That was 17 years ago. And today, when Perry rises and offers his hand to a visitor allowed inside the razor wire-topped brick of Detroit’s Mound Correctional Facility, it is clear that prisoner No. 217645’s claim on childhood has long since lapsed.

He stands 6-foot-2, graying at the temples, his hairline receding. No question, Perry is a man now.

He appeals, though, for the understanding he says the boy he once was still deserves.

“I was wrong. I took people’s lives who didn’t even have a chance to grow up and experience life. But, I mean, I didn’t even experience life myself,” says Perry, now 34. “I’m not saying a child should go unpunished. ... (But) it’s like I’m just abandoned, discarded, left for nothing.”

Perry is far from alone.

Difficult questions surround debate
At least 2,381 people are serving life without parole in U.S. prisons for crimes when they were 17 or younger, the vast majority for taking another life.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that sentencing juveniles to death is unconstitutional, advocates have been nudging lawmakers, courts and the public to go one step further and re-examine the life sentences meted out to young people convicted of the most serious crimes.

If we believe that juveniles are intrinsically different from adults — that their judgment is lacking, that they are capable of learning from mistakes — then how can we justify locking them away forever?

It is a difficult question and a painful one to contemplate. Some of the crimes are horrific. The age of the perpetrators — and often of their victims — is enough to make any parent say a quiet prayer.

Then there is the fact that laws often give courts little choice in weighing punishment. Even when some discretion is allowed, it can distort the choices.

When the time came to sentence Michael Perry, state law forced a judge to decide between widely disparate options. He could treat Perry as a juvenile and see him released by 21. Or he could send him away forever.

“The only conclusion that I can reach,” Judge Leopold Borrello told two grieving families gathered in the courtroom that day, “is that the law deprives me of doing justice.”

'I spent the first six months crying to myself'
Quantel Lotts was 14. He and his brothers were at a friend’s house in St. Francois County, Missouri, and Quantel and his stepbrother Michael Barton started fighting.

Quantel chased Michael — who was three years older — with a bow and arrow before an adult stepped in. Not long after, while they snacked, one of the younger children noticed Quantel holding a knife and reported him to Michael.

“Let’s take this outside,” Michael told Quantel. In the yard, their shoving match ended in Michael’s death. Found guilty, he was sentenced to life without parole.

Today, speaking by telephone from prison, Quantel Lotts will not talk about what happened that day. But he remembers clearly where it left him.

“They say my stepbrother’s dead and they say I killed him,” he says. “When I first got locked up, I spent the first six months crying to myself every night.”

Tough laws hailed by some
Americans believe in stiff punishment. But U.S. courts long applied a more forgiving standard when the accused was a juvenile.

Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, alarm over violent youth crime set off widespread fears. In state after state, lawmakers and prosecutors decided to get tough.

Many states began requiring that juveniles accused of first-degree murder be tried as adults. To show they meant business, lawmakers mandated stiffer punishments.

Today, inmates in 39 states and a federal prison are serving life without parole for crimes they committed as youngsters. Five states — Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Michigan, Florida and California — account for two-thirds of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Tougher laws were applauded by prosecutors and victims’ advocates as necessary tools to fight crime and protect the public.

“If they can do these kinds of crimes, then they’ve got to face the punishment,” says Maggie Elvey, a California activist whose husband, Ross, was beaten to death in 1993 by two teens, ages 15 and 16.

“My theory is when Ross can walk the face of the Earth again, that’s when you can get out,” Elvey says.

But the sharp rise in juvenile violence that the new laws were meant to fight never came. Now some question whether the tougher approach went too far.

“There are probably many cases where I’d say, ‘Yes, lock them up and throw away the key,”’ said Linda J. Collier, a dean at Delaware County Community College in Media, Pa., among those who called for stiffer juvenile sentences. “But there are probably other cases where that kid, if you look into his eyes, if you look into his soul, you can say yes, they can be rehabilitated.”

But how to do that? Should life without parole be eliminated for all juvenile offenders or only for some of them? What should the alternative be?

Life sentence without firing a shot
The questions get harder when they are applied to real lives rather than abstracts.

Addolfo Davis was only 14, but he’d already known plenty of trouble — the child of a Chicago crack addict, he’d been arrested for shoplifting, robbery and other offenses starting when he was 10. Then, in October 1990, Davis joined two other teens — one 16, the other 18 — in something far worse.

The trio, all carrying guns, headed to the third-floor apartment of a rival drug dealer, and when it opened, pushed inside.

One of the men inside knocked Davis’ gun away and ran. But Davis’ companions began shooting, killing two and wounding two others.

After he was arrested, Davis was transferred to adult court, in part because of his prior record. When he was convicted of murder — found accountable although he hadn’t fired a shot — the law made it clear he would be sentenced to life. Today, he is 31.

“Gun towers, bars, walls, lock downs, hand cuffs, visits, letters, collect calls,” he wrote for an assignment in a prison ministry class two years ago. “This is all I know.”

Colorado a model for other states?
Sentencing juveniles to life raises a host of tough questions. Colorado tangled with them last year when lawmakers made juvenile lifers eligible for parole after 40 years and the governor established a special clemency board to review cases.

Now, Michigan could be the next to face those questions.

At least that is the hope of Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor attorney.

She lambastes a legal system that deems people too immature to drink alcohol or serve on juries, but says they are old enough to be held accountable as adults for their crimes.

Worse, she says, mandating life sentences forces courts to treat all youth convicted of murder the same.

“Aren’t there kids who have done horrible things? Yes. But then you have to grant that aren’t there kids who didn’t, who just made a horrible decision,” she says. “Shouldn’t we individualize them? Aren’t they at least entitled to that?”

LaBelle’s files are filled with dozens of such stories.

'Man, I was an idiot'
They are people like Trevor Brownlee, who admonishes himself — 18 years too late — for his days as a teen drug dealer. In 1989, when Brownlee was 15, he and two friends set out for a party. Gangs in Ypsilanti were feuding. Underneath his trenchcoat, Brownlee carried a sawed-off shotgun.

Soon Brownlee’s group ran into teens they’d never seen before. They traded words over turf. The confrontation seemed to fizzle. Then, Brownlee’s friend shouted an alarm: Was one of the out-of-towners reaching for a gun?

Victoria Ross, Trevor Brownlee
Victoria Ross points out her son, Trevor Brownlee, when he was 17, in a photograph at her home, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007, in Ypsilanti, Mich. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)Tony Ding / AP

Brownlee didn’t wait to find out. He opened fire, killing one teen, paralyzing another from the waist down.

Brownlee, serving life at Riverside Correctional Facility in Ionia, has plenty of time to think about that night. He’s troubled about more than that he killed someone. It’s that, in his words, the crime was “about nothing.”

“It wasn’t until I was 25 that I actually sat down and realized the full extent of what I did,” says Brownlee, now 33. “Man, I was an idiot.”

Brownlee and others like him hope Michigan lawmakers see that they are worthy of a second chance.

But backers of life without parole, like Saginaw Prosecutor Michael Thomas, sharply disagree. Years of violent juvenile crime have defiled his hometown, Thomas says, making clear the need to protect the public and see that justice is done.

“I think most people sitting on a jury, most people with houses in your neighborhood, pretty much understand that they (juveniles accused of heinous crimes) are the worst of the worst and that the penalty does fit the crime,” he says.

Choice with no middle ground
On the day Michael Lee Perry was sentenced for the Saginaw firebombing, the judge sought a middle ground that did not exist.

Instead, he sentenced Perry to life, while recommending that after 20 years a Michigan governor consider him for a reprieve, commutation or pardon.

Perry is already preparing his petition for freedom.

“When I go see Michael he gives me hope that everything will be better when he comes home,” his mother, Maria Chavira, says.

But Perry recognizes that political calculus makes exoneration rare. Even as he reassures his mother, he tries to makes peace with the possibility that will never happen.

“If I do (spend) my life within these walls and fences, I’ll accept my punishment,” he wrote the judge two years ago, in a letter intended for the family of his victims, “and do it in the memory of the pain, suffering, heartaches and deaths I helped cause.”

“I will never forget.”