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August 31, 2017

Interesting accounting of effort by Michigan juve killer to get Miller resentencing relief even though he is parole eligible

I was intrigued to see this local Michigan story, headlined "Sides plea on re-sentencing of teen killer," discussing a courtroom debate over whether a juvenile killer long ago sentenced to life with parole should still be able to secure resentencing thanks to the Supreme Court's recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. I find the story intriguing not only because of an effort to expand the reach of Miller, but also because the murder victim's family is apparently supportive of the offender's effort to secure release nearly four decades after the crime:

Members of both families packed a courtroom Wednesday as lawyers argued for and against a re-sentencing for a man who killed a high school classmate in 1980. Relatives of Michael Johnson, serving a life sentence for murdering Sue Ellen Machemer, and relatives of Sue Ellen sat on the same side of the courtroom during his bid for re-sentencing. For years, the victim’s family, as well as Johnson’s, have supported his release from prison.

Johnson, 54, was 17 when he killed Sue Ellen, a 15-year-old classmate at Lakeshore High School, where they were both juniors. Johnson, who is in the Ionia Correctional Facility, did not appear at Wednesday’s hearing. His lawyer, Mary Chartier of Lansing, argued for a re-sentencing for Johnson, saying his life sentence, though parolable, is unconstitutional and invalid based on new information about the brain development and characteristics of juveniles. Also, because the Michigan Parole Board has not taken an interest in Johnson’s case, he has no meaningful opportunity for release, Chartier told Berrien County Trial Court Judge John Donahue.

Berrien Assistant Prosecutor Aaron Mead argued that the Parole Board’s action, or lack of, has nothing to do with the validity of the sentence, and that Johnson’s case would be better fought by suing the Parole Board. “Frankly, allowing somebody to back door the Parole Board by saying a sentence is invalid is a very bad precedent,” Mead told the judge at a hearing Wednesday on Johnson’s motion for a re-sentencing.

Donahue took the lawyers’ arguments under advisement and said he will rule in four to eight weeks whether Johnson should be re-sentenced.

Chartier said Johnson’s sentence is unconstitutional because it began when he was a juvenile. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment when applied to juveniles. Because the ruling is retroactive, courts are working through a number of first-degree murder cases involving juvenile offenders, and in some cases re-sentencing them.

Mead argues that Johnson’s case does not apply because he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and was sentenced by the late Judge Julian Hughes to life in prison with the possibility of parole. After serving 10 years, Johnson came into the parole board’s jurisdiction, but the board has never expressed interest in paroling him.

In 2010, Johnson lost on a motion to set aside his life prison sentence. Donahue, who hears Johnson’s motions because he is Hughes’ predecessor on the bench, rejected Johnson’s earlier argument that a change in Michigan Parole Board policies invalidated his sentence. Sue Ellen’s parents, Mel and Ellen Machemer, sat next to Johnson’s family in court, as they did during the hearing in 2010. The Machemers say they have gotten to know Johnson as an adult in prison, have forgiven him, and think it may be time for his release. His own family also supports him and says he has a place to live and a job waiting for him.

Chartier told the judge Wednesday that when Johnson’s file is looked at every five years, he gets a notice of “no interest” from the Parole Board and therefore has repeatedly been denied any meaningful opportunity for release. She said his sentence has been more harsh than that of juveniles convicted of first-degree murder because their cases now have to be reconsidered. “The Supreme Court says that juveniles must be offered some meaningful opportunity for release, and mere hope is not enough,” Chartier told the court. “The Supreme Court says juveniles are different, that wasn’t (considered) in Michael Johnson’s case. These rulings are retroactive, and he’s being denied the (high court’s) mandate for a meaningful opportunity for release.”

Chartier further argued that because Johnson’s sentence was life rather than a term of years, he is being treated in the same manner as someone sentenced to life without parole. She said someone sentenced to a term of years, when up for parole review, is told why if parole is not granted. “In his case, they don’t have to state a reason for not hearing it. He is a juvenile serving a life sentence. He’s gotten no guidance regarding what he needs to do to be released,” Chartier told Donahue....

Mead argued that a sentence can only be reviewed if it is determined to be invalid. Johnson was sentenced to parolable life for second-degree murder, a sentence that is valid, Mead told the court. He said the Supreme Court ruling regarding juveniles applied “only to non-parolable life, nothing else.” He said the Berrien County Trial Court cannot find the sentence invalid based on the Parole Board process. “Where do you draw the line regarding meaningful opportunity (for release)? You don’t draw it in this court,” Mead told Donahue. “Nobody has had the Parole Board answer for itself. The defendant is asking you to be a Super Parole Board. If prisoners say the Parole Board is the problem, then by all means hold them accountable.”

August 31, 2017 at 10:02 AM | Permalink

Comments

"I find the story intriguing not only because of an effort to expand the reach of Miller, but also because the murder victim's family is apparently supportive of the offender's effort to secure release nearly four decades after the crime."

Yes, the victims is these cases aren't some general mass; they have various positions, especially when the range of punishment is "a whole lot" and "even more than that."

Pushing cases to go further than the minimum they might warrant is basically the law in action. It is an interesting ever developing story.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 31, 2017 1:06:38 PM

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