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November 17, 2010

ACLU files complaint attacking constitutionality of LWOP for nine juves convicted of murder in Michigan

As detailed in this local article, which is headlined "ACLU fights law sentencing kids to life in prison," the American Civil Liberties Union "sued the State of Michigan today on behalf of nine people who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for parole for crimes they committed as juveniles." Here are more details from the press report:

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, says Michigan’s sentencing laws constitute cruel and unusual punishment and violate the constitutional rights of the inmates. All nine were sentenced for first-degree murder or felony murder.

“These life without parole sentences ignore the very real differences between children and adults, abandoning the concepts of redemption and second chances,” Deborah Labelle, lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, said in a statement accompanying the suit....

Under state law, 14-year-olds charged with certain felonies must be tried as adults. If convicted, they must be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, eliminating any discretion on the part of the judge....

Today’s lawsuit is part of a national campaign by the ACLU and other groups to overturn juvenile lifer laws. It said 43 states have such laws, but five states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Florida and California — account for two-thirds of people serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. The ACLU said Michigan has 350 such inmates.

Most of the nine plaintiffs in the case are well into adulthood. They include: Matthew Bentley, 28, who was sentenced to life in prison when he killed a homeowner in Huron County during a break-in when he was 14; Henry Hill Jr., 47, who was sentenced in 1982 for a fatal shooting during a confrontation with other boys in a park in Saginaw even though the ACLU said he didn’t fire the fatal shots; and Jennifer Pruitt, 33, who was sentenced in 1993 in the robbery-murder of a neighbor in Pontiac.

The ACLU said Hill fired shots in the air, not at the victims, and that Pruitt, a 16-year-old runaway, was not aware that the woman who took her was planning to rob the victim.

The ACLU has this press release about the suit on its website, along with this webpage with profiles and pictures of the nine plaintiffs in the suit.  Intriguingly, one of the nine is a woman, and six of the eight male plaintiffs appear to African-American.  This additional ACLU webpageprovides links to additional resources about juve LWOP, including this link to the full 34-page complaint filed today.

November 17, 2010 at 04:30 PM | Permalink


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Wouldn't this suit be barred by Heck v. Humphrey? Wouldn't winning on any of their claims necessarily imply the invalidity of their sentences? Does it get around Heck simply because they're seeking declaratory relief? And, if so, does that mean that anyone who wants to attack the constitutionality of his/her sentence may file what would otherwise be a time-barred (or second-or-successive) habeas petition simply by filing it as a civil rights action seeking declaratory relief?

Posted by: guest | Nov 17, 2010 4:49:28 PM

guest, i was thinking the same thing. i'm actually sympathetic to their arguments, but i think they have massive procedural problems. maybe they don't care and are just doing it for the public relations value? seems clearly barred for the reasons you cite and problem several others.

Posted by: Anon | Nov 19, 2010 5:53:38 PM

Interesting. They are claiming they don't challenge their "life" sentences, but only the parole board's refusal to consider them for parole. This may depend on the specific statutory scheme in Michigan. For example, if the primary sentencing statute just says "life," and there is a separate statute somewhere else that forbids the parole board from considering/granting parole for X,Y, and Z people, then I guess there is a question about whether or not invalidating the separate statute affects the original conviction/sentence. I think there is some good precedent dealing with challenging parole-board procedures in general... at least for people who are undoubtedly parole eligible, and are just challenging things like waiting periods, etc.

Posted by: Anon2 | Nov 19, 2010 5:57:14 PM

This is an another assault on families who have endured a hell no one can comprehend...


Posted by: Bobbi J | Nov 20, 2010 10:03:05 AM

Relevant factors in sentencing should be retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and menace to society. There's an interesting article here that discusses these factors as they relate to juveniles facing parole:


Posted by: Agatha | Nov 29, 2010 7:33:14 PM

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