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February 13, 2018

Retired Missouri judge now expressing regret about giving 16-year-old offender 241 years in prison for role in two armed robberies

Evelyn Baker, a retired Missouri circuit court judge, has this notable new opinion piece in the Washington Post under the headline "I sentenced a teen to die in prison. I regret it." Here are excerpts:

“You will die in the Department of Corrections.” Those are the words I spoke as a trial judge in 1997 when I sentenced Bobby Bostic to a total of 241 years in prison for his role in two armed robberies he committed when he was just 16 years old.

Bostic and an 18-year-old friend robbed a group of six people who were delivering Christmas presents to a needy family in St. Louis.  Two shots were fired.  A bullet grazed one person, but no one was seriously injured.  The two then abducted and robbed another woman — who said she was groped by Bostic’s accomplice before the two released her. They used the money they stole from her to buy marijuana.  Despite overwhelming evidence against him, Bostic chose to go to trial.  He was found guilty.

Bostic had written me a letter trying to explain his actions, but despite this, he had not, in my view, demonstrated sufficient remorse.

I told him: “You are the biggest fool who has ever stood in front of this court. . . . You made your choice. You’re gonna have to live with your choice, and you’re gonna die with your choice. . . . Your mandatory date to go in front of the parole board will be the year 2201.  Nobody in this room is going to be alive in the year 2201.”

I thought I was faulting Bostic for his crimes.  Looking back, I see that I was punishing him both for what he did and for his immaturity.  I am now retired, and I deeply regret what I did.  Scientists have discovered so much about brain development in the more than 20 years since I sentenced Bostic.  What I learned too late is that young people’s brains are not static; they are in the process of maturing.  Kids his age are unable to assess risks and consequences like an adult would.  Overwhelming scientific research shows that children lack maturity and a sense of responsibility compared with adults because they are still growing.  But for the same reason, they also have greater capacity for reform.

That’s perhaps not surprising.  As a society, we recognize that children and teens cannot and do not function as adults.  That’s why below a certain age you cannot vote, join the military, serve on a jury or buy cigarettes or alcohol....

Most courts have understood the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to mean that the Constitution prohibits sentences like the one I gave to Bostic.  While I did not technically give him “life without parole,” I placed on his shoulders a prison term of so many years combined that there is no way he will ever be considered for release.  He won’t become eligible for parole until he is 112 years old — which means he will die in prison, regardless of whether he rehabilitates himself or changes as he grows older.

I see now that this kind of sentence is as benighted as it is unjust.  But Missouri and a handful of other states still allow such sentences, and the Missouri courts have affirmed the sentence I handed down.

This week, the Supreme Court will consider whether to take Bostic’s case and, if the justices do, they will decide whether his sentence is an outcome the Constitution can countenance.  The court should take the case and give Bostic the chance I did not: to show that he has changed and does not deserve to die in prison for something he did when he was just 16.

Imposing a life sentence without parole on a child who has not committed murder — whether imposed in a single sentence or multiple sentences, for one crime or many — is wrong.  Bostic was immature, and I punished him for that.  But to put him, and children like him, in prison for life without any chance of release, no matter how they develop over time, is unfair, unjust and, under the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, unconstitutional.

I am pleased to see a judge who imposed a functional LWOP sentence now recognizing and advocating that functional LWOP sentences create the same constitutional concerns as formal LWOP sentences that the Supreme Court found to violate the Eighth Amendment in Graham.  That said, I find it a little rich this judge now asserting that she "learned too late" that juvenile brains are different than adult brains.  Also, as the judge's commentary hints and as this local article from a few years ago about the case confirms, it seems Bostic's decision to go to trial rather than his crimes largely accounts for his need now to seek constitutional relief from the Supreme Court:

Bostic is serving a vastly greater sentence than Hutson, his accomplice, who received 30 years and will be eligible for parole six years from now.

Both men were accused of firing guns that night. The only difference: Bostic went to trial and Hutson pleaded guilty.

February 13, 2018 at 04:16 PM | Permalink

Comments

These crimes are not the type I'd think someone who believes in giving life to sixteen year olds would deem worth it. There are some really horrible non-capital crimes involved out there in many cases. This isn't one of them. That is a major problem here.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 13, 2018 6:50:31 PM

"What I learned too late is that young people’s brains are not static; they are in the process of maturing. Kids his age are unable to assess risks and consequences of hormone-blockers and sex-change surgery."

Well duh! Why would you give someone under 18 hormone-blockers when they aren't even mature enough to cast a ballot for dog-catcher?

Posted by: Owing the Benjamins | Feb 13, 2018 7:10:14 PM

"The only difference: Bostic went to trial and Hutson pleaded guilty."

The sixth amendment says that the tax for exercising your right to a trial is a longer prison sentence. The founders put that in there because they knew that if everyone exercised their rights the people would get a superiority complex; so you keep the people humble by punishing them every time they act like free citizens rather than enslaved subjects of the king.

Not giving people who go to trial a longer sentence would be like letting people vote for free or letting women into the Virginia Military Institute.

Posted by: Dendrite | Feb 13, 2018 7:15:57 PM

And if I had my druthers both would have been executed. Armed robbery is far over the line of what behavior should be forgiven even once regardless of age.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 13, 2018 9:38:40 PM

Adolescent brains are different. They are totally superior to adult ones, in every way, including morality.

These two should have been executed on the spot.

The lawyer profession knows shit. It thinks it knows more than the rest of us, and imposes its idiotic tyranny on crime victims.

The curve of the horizon is self evident, yet your morons call the earth, flat. The superiority of adolescents is across the board, yet you morons call adolescents less culpable.

Posted by: David Behar | Feb 14, 2018 2:39:13 AM

Joe. Thank you for your fact free ipse dixit. Also, thank you for not saying, on the other hand ...

Posted by: David Behar | Feb 14, 2018 8:09:49 AM

What I "regret" is that some moronic Missouri politician made Evelyn Baker, or anyone else who thinks 241 years is appropriate for a juvenile of 16 whose juvie codefendant got 30 on a plea to the facts as described, a judge. Anyone with even a trace of experience with 16 year old boys -- or in the alternative half a brain-- would have to question this determination long before the sentencing proceeding, and the certitude Her Dishonor exhibited in imposing this benighted
sentence for a lack of "sufficient" remorse is shocking in its shallowness, and only barely exceeded by her newly enlightened "oopsie, sorry". This is on her, and the courts which affirmed this travesty.

Posted by: miketrials | Feb 14, 2018 8:51:26 AM

Note that the "sane" penalty here for the co-defendant (he was 18 but given people 16 in various cases are treated like an adult, not sure how much this matters) "received 30 years and will be eligible for parole six years from now."

I don't think sixteen year olds should generally get thirty years in prison and to a sixteen year old (or to a college student probably) that very well might seem almost akin to a life sentence as is. Many adults have a short term view of life, only thinking of the present. A teenager particularly has such a mentality. So, I'm not surprised that he decided to take a risk of a trial. The judge calling him out as selfish is "duh" moment. Teens generally are selfish, those who commit crimes more likely as such.

Anyway, as noted by our resident pro-death penalty for single armed robberies by early teenagers show us, ymmv, but for non-capital crimes committed in 2015, especially ones not involving really horrible things like rape or the like, I think from my understanding of societal beliefs from long term observation and study that many tough on crime types will judge getting out in 2035 is not overly lax.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 14, 2018 10:22:15 AM

Hi, Joe. This guy is 19. Frontal lobes are not fully myelinated. Maybe, he can be sent to family court, and placed in foster care until age 21. I think he was overly impetuous. He should mature in a few years.

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/breakingnews/17-dead-15-wounded-after-expelled-student-shoots-up-florida-high-school/ar-BBJ94GA?li=BBmkt5R&ocid=spartanntp

Posted by: David Behar | Feb 15, 2018 12:22:09 AM

I don't know. There so many innocent people in prison that it's hard for me to get too worked up about this guy.

Here are some names.

Adnan Syed (MD)
Barton McNeil (IL)
Edward Ates (TX)
Michael Ware (TX)
Joey Watkins (GA)
Jamar Huggins (GA)
Jesse Eldridge (TX)
Willie Veasy (PA)
Terrance Lewis (PA)

The details differ, but in each case there is enough evidence to find the person innocent beyond a reasonable doubt.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Feb 17, 2018 9:27:44 PM

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