Supreme Court Decision Gives Juvenile Lifers and Their Families New Hope

(Photo: US Supreme Court Building via Shutterstock)(Photo: US Supreme Court Building via Shutterstock)

The US Supreme Court gave new hope to families with loved ones languishing in prison this week in its January 25 ruling on Montgomery v. Louisiana.

In its 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, the court had ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles constitute cruel and unusual punishment. But it did not specify whether Miller should be applied retroactively, leaving each state to make its own decisions on that front.

Pennsylvania is one of four states whose courts decided that it did not. In its Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling, the court reiterated that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional and invited juveniles to apply for retroactive resentencing, a move which may permit thousands the possibility (but not the guarantee) of eventually coming home.

“I get a chance to return to society. I’m not the criminal that they’re portraying me to be.”

Kerry Marshall is one of approximately 480 Pennsylvanians sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed as a teenager. In 1988, Marshall was a 17-year-old high school student living in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, with his mother and younger sister. His family had moved there three years earlier from Philadelphia. But that November, while visiting his old hometown and friends, Marshall was arrested on charges of robbery and murder. According to the district attorney and local news media, he and a friend had attempted to rob a fish vendor. They didn’t realize that the driver had her own gun. She fired at her would-be robbers. In turn, she was shot and killed. Although he was 17, Marshall was charged as an adult. His friend ultimately pled guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 16.5 to 40 years in prison. Under the conditions of his plea bargain, he agreed to be available to testify against Marshall.

Marshall was offered a life sentence if he pled guilty. Although he faced the death penalty, he nevertheless decided to take his chances at trial, where his friend testified against him. A jury found him guilty but spared him the death penalty. Instead, he was sentenced to life without parole. Marshall’s mother Patricia Vickers doesn’t know what happened that fateful day and declined to speculate, but she told Truthout that her son, who now goes by Shakaboona (his mother’s childhood nickname for him), has matured and changed in the 26 years since.

“Whatever happened on that day, he’s not the same man that he was then. He’s grown and he’s learned.” He now edits The Movement, a newsletter connecting people inside and outside prison walls, and regularly calls in commentary to Prison Radio. His original sentence meant that he would never appear before a parole board. Now, he has the opportunity to apply for resentencing, which may result in a sentence that permits the option of parole.

When Vickers learned about the Supreme Court decision, she said, “It was like a whole new ray of hope. I thought I had faith and hope before, but this was so exciting for people to finally see what they were doing to these kids is wrong.” Shakaboona also learned the news that day when he coincidentally called Prison Radio.

“I think it’s great,” he told Prison Radio. “I get a chance to return to society as well and show people that I’m not the animal that they’re portraying me to be, that I’m not the criminal that they’re portraying me to be and that I am a productive person in society and a good person as well.”

Now, 15 states have eliminated juvenile life without parole, but more than 2,000 people, sometimes known as juvenile lifers, are still serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. But, just as the tide has slowly been turning against placing juveniles in solitary confinement, so too has the presumption that teenagers must languish in prison for the rest of their lives. The Supreme Court’s ruling follows the recent pattern in criminal legal reform, embraced not only by juvenile justice advocates but also health advocates and neuroscientists, that adolescent brains are not fully developed and so children cannot be held to the same level of accountability as adults. However, while science now shows that brain development is not fully complete until age 25, the Supreme Court decision only extends to those under age 18.

Turning the Clock Back

Some states moved to retroactively apply the Miller decision quickly after the ruling came down. In California, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 9 (or SB 9), allowing juvenile lifers to apply for a new sentencing hearing. But the hearing does not always result in a different sentence.

Forty-year-old Liz Lozano has spent half her life in prison. In 1992, Lozano was 16 and a member of the T-Town Flats street gang. Her boyfriend Steven Green was a member of a rival gang. That January, fearing that 13-year-old Tayde Vasquez would tell other T-Town Flats members that Lozano had been associating with a rival gang, she and Green walked the young girl to the park where they robbed her of her jewelry and shot her in the head, killing her. Soon after, Lozano went to Mexico, where she remained for four years. When she returned to Southern California, it was as a new mother with a 4-month-old son. She was arrested and tried as an adult.

Although Green testified that he alone had been responsible for killing Vasquez, she was convicted of felony murder and robbery and sentenced to life without parole.

In 2015, Lozano was granted a sentencing hearing. Although SB 9 clearly states that a petition should include a “statement describing his or her remorse and work towards rehabilitation,” the prosecution argued against including testimony of Lozano’s growth and change during her 20 years in prison. The judge, who had presided over Lozano’s trial, agreed and only permitted testimony that “turns back the clock to the initial day of sentencing.” This came as a blow to Lozano’s family, who had been waiting to testify.

Even 23 years later, “It’s still pretty hard. At the end of the visit, it hurts to leave her there.”

“I honestly thought the judge would give her another chance,” said Zelia Lozano, a cousin whose testimony was restricted only to Lozano’s childhood. “They didn’t give her credit for anything [since her imprisonment].” Her son, now 20, was not allowed to speak at all about the significance of his mother’s absence nor what her release from prison would mean to him even now. The restriction also prevented a retired prison warden and Dolores Canales, who had known Lozano for seven years during her own incarceration, from testifying about Lozano’s positive growth and development over the past 20 years.

Canales remembers Lozano “striving to be better.” She was involved in various prison programs, including vocational courses, courses that encouraged participants to think about the consequences of crime on victims, the prison’s inmate council, self-help programs and even an outreach program to keep teenagers and adolescents from participating in crime. Canales particularly remembers Lozano starting a program for juvenile lifers, in which she and older women who had been sentenced to life without parole for the crimes they committed as teens could mentor women entering prison with that same sentence. If she were allowed parole, Canales said, “She would use her experience to help others so that others don’t make the same mistake.”

The judge did not see it that way, stating, “I do not see a possibility of rehabilitation” and sentencing Lozano to life without parole again. Lozano and her attorneys appealed. On January 14, 2016, an appeals court ruled that a judge must consider prison behavior, including participation in programming, in deciding whether prisoners should be eligible for parole. “All relevant evidence, in our view, includes what Lozano asserts is 15 years of rehabilitation in prison,” wrote Justice Sandy Kriegler. The court ordered that Lozano be granted a new hearing.

Not all SB 9 hearings are as contentious. Canales attended a hearing in Orange County for Tommy Miller, who had been 16 when he fatally shot another teenager, allegedly over the other teen’s $2,500 sound system. That hearing, Canales told Truthout, was very different. Miller had been involved in numerous stabbings before he turned 23 and spent time in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison on gang charges. Nonetheless, the presiding judge allowed testimony about Miller’s post-conviction rehabilitation, testimony that made the hearing stretch for three days. The judge, citing SB 9’s criteria that a person’s actions indicate rehabilitation or the potential for rehabilitation, resentenced Miller to 25 years to life with an additional 10 years. “Maybe by the time you’re 50, you’ll be able to walk the streets,” Canales recalled the judge saying. “But you’ll have to work for it.” In other words, Miller must still prove his worth to the parole board, but the new sentence allows him to eventually appear before the board.

“We’re Supposed to Be a Country of Second Chances”

Philadelphia County, where Shakaboona was arrested and sentenced, holds less than 1 percent of the nation’s population. But it accounts for nearly 10 percent (214) of all juvenile life without parole sentences nationwide. Dara’s brother is another of those 214 teens sentenced to die in prison. Dara, who asked that her last name not be used nor her brother identified, told Truthout that her brother was 15 years old in 1998 when he was arrested on charges of first-degree murder after shooting a man for whom he had been dealing drugs and who had threatened his life. On the advice of his public defender, he opted to take his case before the judge rather than face a jury trial. In hindsight, Dara said, it was bad advice – the judge convicted him and sentenced him to life without parole.

Despite his seemingly never-ending sentence, his entire family – Dara, their mother, aunts, uncles, cousins and even men released from prison – are standing behind him. The Montgomery decision gives them new hope. “It was the best news I’ve heard in several years,” she said.

As of 2012, less than 3 percent of all juvenile lifers are female. Lozano is one; Sharvonne Robbins, now 39, is another. In 1993, 16-year-old Robbins and several other people were arrested for a fatal shooting in Philadelphia. Although Robbins was not the shooter, she was convicted of second-degree murder, robbery, possessing an instrument of a crime and criminal conspiracy and sentenced to life without parole. (One of her co-defendants was also sentenced to life without parole; the others received 10-year sentences and have since been released from prison.)

“Every child can grow and change. Life without parole is saying that you’re not capable of change.”

Robbins is one year younger than her cousin Sissy. The two grew up together and, Sissy says, “were more like sisters than cousins.” Sissy, who asked only to be identified by her first name, recalled that the two often spent afternoons sitting in Robbins’ room listening to R&B. “Babyface was our favorite,” she remembered. Although her cousin is nearly 200 miles away at the women’s prison in Muncy, Pennsylvania, Sissy and other family members make the drive to see her every other weekend. “Only eight people are allowed [to visit] at a time,” she explained. “Everybody wants to go, but we can’t all go at once.” But, even 23 years later, she noted, “It’s still pretty hard. At the end of the visit, it hurts to leave her there.”

Sissy learned about the Supreme Court decision from Facebook and local news. “I thought I was reading it wrong, so I woke my friend up and asked her to read it to me,” she said. Ten minutes later, Robbins called and asked her to confirm the news. Sissy did, then heard her cousin “screaming and hollering and letting the other women around her know that it was true.” Sissy is overjoyed, not just for her cousin but for all the juvenile lifers who now have a second chance. “Please make it known to the other young lifers that our prayers and thoughts go out to them too.”

Sissy acknowledges that her cousin’s actions helped contribute to the tragic loss of a life. “My heart does go out to the families – not just in Sharvonne’s case, but for everyone where young lifers made poor decisions,” she said. So do the other family members who spoke with Truthout. Dara notes that her brother’s actions took a man away from his family. “This was a tragic mistake,” she said. But, she adds, “We’re supposed to be a country of second chances.” In the nearly 20 years since, her brother has matured and is no longer the 15-year-old in the street. While in prison, he has gotten his GED and HVAC certification; he has also become a religious mentor to those around him.

“Children learn from their mistakes. We all learn from our mistakes,” said Patricia Vickers, Kerry Marshall’s mother. “Every child can grow and change. Every one of us – we’ve all done something in the past that we may not be proud of. It may not be as bad as taking someone’s life, but nobody’s squeaky clean. Life without parole is saying that you’re not capable of change.”

As a member of both the Human Rights Coalition, which organizes families to fight against prison abuses, and the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, which was formed in coalition with the Human Rights Coalition and several other prisoner rights groups, Vickers hails Montgomery as “a huge stepping stone to realizing that people shouldn’t be spending life in prison. All people grow and change.”