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March 9, 2015

Profile of one (of thousands) of the juve LWOP stories full of post-Miller uncertainty

Thanks to How Appealing, I saw this interesting article from North Carolina about the history of an offender long serving an LWOP sentence for a juvenile murder who still awaits resolution of whether he can benefit from the Supreme Court's work three years ago in Miller v. Alabama.  The piece is headlined "Convicted of murder at 16, Anthony Willis is hoping a Supreme Court decision will overturn his sentence," and merits a full read for those following post-Miller developments closely. Here is an excerpt from the lengthy piece:

[I]f nothing else, prison gives a man time to reflect. Willis slowly came to realize — even though he was expected to die behind bars — that he needed his life to matter. The best way to do that, he decided, was to lean on God and to educate himself. After earning his GED, Willis began taking anger- and stress-management classes and attending prison fellowship seminars.

He earned back-to-back-to-back associate degrees from Western Piedmont Community College and a bachelor's degree from California Coast University. His mother attended his graduation ceremony for his first associate degree.  "That's my baby," Brenda Willis yelled as Willis walked down the aisle.  She was so proud of her son.

That's a big part of Willis' motivation today.  He wants his mother to know that his actions as a teenager were never her fault....  Now 35, his appearance and demeanor are nothing like one might expect from a man who has spent slightly more than half his life in prison. Most of the other prisoners call him Smiley, a nickname that has transferred with him from prison to prison.

Thin, polite, boyish and articulate, Willis seems to have been transformed by prison into a man who has gained respect by learning to stop following the herd.  Willis said he has found comfort in the Lord and teaches those virtues to other prisoners.  He said he regularly leads prison fellowship seminars and takes pride in his role as a mentor and recreational leader.  Willis said he often counsels new prisoners almost as soon as they get off the bus.  Most mistake his optimism for someone who is about to get released — anyone but a lifer....

Willis acknowledges that serving a life sentence isn't easy. "It's hard to hold onto hope in here," he said. "It's like holding onto a ledge by your fingertips." But he endures the best he can, buoyed by his faith, his new-found purpose in life and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling called Miller vs. Alabama.

On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life in prison without parole for people who committed murder as juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling effectively struck down laws in 28 states, including North Carolina....

The court did not bar mandatory life sentences without parole in all juvenile homicide cases. It said lower courts could impose such a sentence only after examining mitigating factors, including family environment, the circumstances of the offense and the possibility of rehabilitation.  But the court didn't make its order retroactive, so it does not apply to Willis and 87 other murderers convicted as juveniles and now serving life sentences in North Carolina.

In December, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the Miller ruling should be made retroactive in a Louisiana murder. But the case was resolved at the state level, leaving no issue for the federal court to hear. So making Miller retroactive remains in limbo, at least in North Carolina.

Less than two weeks after the Miller ruling, North Carolina's General Assembly responded by approving a law that requires a parole review after a juvenile murderer has spent a minimum of 25 years in prison.  But again, the law applies only to sentences handed down after the Miller ruling.  Courts in at least nine states — including South Carolina — have ruled that the ruling will be applied retroactively. Five other states have ruled that the decision is not retroactive.  North Carolina's appellate courts continue to consider the issue.

March 9, 2015 at 09:08 AM | Permalink

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