Six years after landmark Supreme Court ruling, many inmates convicted as juveniles remain in prison
Over the course of 10 weeks, three MJP interns examined how lengthy resentencings and repeated parole denials keep juvenile offenders in prison indefinitely. Read the story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch here.
By Catherine Kim, Davis Rich and Erica Snow
The Medill Justice Project
Sixteen-year-old Ledale Nathan did not expect to spend the rest of his life in prison when he and an acquaintance, Mario Coleman, 22, invaded a St. Louis home on Oct. 5, 2009.
The two stormed the house with the intent to rob the family inside, Nathan told the Medill Justice Project. Rose Whitrock, her nephew Nicholas Koenig, her daughter Gina Stallis, and Koenig’s girlfriend, Isabella Lovadina, were ordered to kneel facedown . Nathan held Whitrock’s 77-year-old mother at gunpoint and threatened to shoot her, say court transcripts.
Stallis was told to go into the basement. Lovadina testified she feared Coleman wanted to rape Stallis. When Lovadina offered to take her place, she said, everyone was ordered downstairs.
Worried the intruders would shoot them in the basement, Lovadina, an off-duty St. Louis police officer, charged at Coleman. In response, Coleman fired at least seven shots, killing Stallis and seriously injuring Lovadina and Koenig, according to court transcripts.
Coleman was convicted of first-degree murder, along with 25 other counts, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.
There was no evidence to prove Nathan fired his gun. Still, he also was found guilty in April 2011 of first-degree murder and was sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole, according to court transcripts. Under Missouri law, accomplices can be held accountable for murder.
Nathan is one of about 2,600 people nationwide who received a life sentence without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that such mandatory life in prison without parole sentences were unconstitutional. Four years later, the court made the decision retroactive in Montgomery v. Louisiana. These decisions rendered Nathan’s initial sentence unconstitutional, leading to a resentencing trial in 2014.
More than 300 people have been released since the Miller ruling, said Karmah Elmusa, communications director for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, an advocacy organization fighting for juvenile justice.
Legal experts and criminal justice advocates say the two Supreme Court rulings attempt to solve one question: How should the judicial system sentence a young person convicted of a heinous crime?
States have addressed the rulings by granting eligible offenders resentencing hearings or opportunities for parole.
Still, prisoners’ rights advocates argue that lengthy resentencings and repeated parole denials keep juvenile offenders in prison indefinitely, a punishment they feel is too harsh for crimes committed at a young age.
While some victims and their families believe in second chances, others say the two Supreme Court rulings have brought back painful memories they hoped to never relive.
A troubled childhood
Exposure to violence and familial drug addiction characterized Nathan’s childhood. When he was about 10 and living with his grandmother Christine Pordos, Nathan said he watched her douse his and his sibling’s bedroom in gasoline. She threatened to set the room — and the children inside — on fire. Pordos told the Medill Justice Project it was just a “scare tactic” used after a disagreement with her daughter, Yvonne Pordos.
“If I have a kid disrespecting me like that, I’ll burn you up,” Christine Pordos, 64, said. “You’re not going to disrespect me in my house.”
Yvonne Pordos and her children left the house after the incident. Nathan said he felt scared, angry and confused. “I didn’t understand like why we was [sic] always the ones going through a lot of abuse and hatred and stuff like that,” he said.
Christine Pordos, who was addicted to crack cocaine, would beat Nathan and lock him in the basement, according to court transcripts. Yvonne Pordos said that she also struggled with crack cocaine addiction and would leave Nathan alone with his siblings for days at a time.
“I didn’t have a relationship with my kids when I was on drugs. I had no relationship with anything at the time but the drugs,” Yvonne Pordos said.
Nathan said he would steal food so he could cook for his siblings when his mother was gone.
The Miller ruling pressed judges and juries to consider a juvenile’s home environment in resentencing proceedings.
It established several ways in which juveniles are constitutionally different from adults. The court said children may lack responsibility and maturity and therefore are more prone to risk-taking and peer pressure. Because a child’s character is not as “fixed” as an adult’s, the court held children are less culpable and “less deserving of the most severe punishments.”
Research regarding adolescent development supported the court’s decision. The brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for impulse control, may not completely develop until the age of 25, said Elizabeth Cauffman, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine. Context, nutrition, and traumatic experiences can alter juvenile development as well, she said.
Robert Steele, one of Nathan’s attorneys, argued at the 2014 resentencing trial that Nathan’s turbulent environment undermined his development.
Abuse “destroys the kid’s mind, his reasoning,” Steele said in his closing argument, according to court transcripts, adding that Nathan was thinking “not like a man, but like an average kid.”
Prosecutor Beth Orwick, however, said during the resentencing that Nathan’s background should not excuse the choices he made.
A second look
As Nathan awaited the verdict at his resentencing trial, he expected to receive about 20 years, with credit for time served. Instead, he received the equivalent of 300 years in prison, including six consecutive life sentences. Nathan, now 26, will not be eligible for parole for over 70 years.
Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Montgomery case in 2016, about 60 percent of juveniles sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole have been resentenced, according to Jody Kent Lavy, the executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
Still, prosecutors in several states are again seeking life without parole for these inmates or asking judges to run sentences consecutively so offenders essentially serve life sentences, according to Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit law firm for children and their families.
Levick added that state supreme courts are split on whether so-called virtual life sentences — which exceed a typical life span — violate the Miller ruling.
Lengthy new sentences disregard the logic behind the Miller ruling, some experts said. “Death in prison” sentences should be few and far between, said Vincent Southerland, executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at the New York University School of Law.
He said a court “hasn’t done the kind of rigorous review” necessary to create a fair sentence if a juvenile offender ends up spending decades in prison.
Rose Whitrock thinks a lot about Nathan, who was convicted of killing her daughter, Gina Stallis.
“I do feel really bad that this young man is in prison for the rest of his life,” Whitrock said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that there is anything good about our justice system or our prison system. I think no one knew what to do with him.”
Whitrock hated Nathan after the crime, but she doesn’t anymore, saying it “took too much energy.” She wondered why Nathan entered the home that night and whether he had learned from his mistake.
For families of victims, the Miller ruling initially led to anger because they had thought the perpetrators would never be released from prison, said Jennifer Storm, the appointed victim advocate in Pennsylvania.
“This ruling just kind of ripped that certainty right away,” Storm said.
“They want the [criminal justice] system to know they still exist, and that there was a face and a life and love and experience behind the person that was taken. That it can’t just be about the person who took the life now.”
Victims play an important role in the resentencing process by testifying to the crime’s impact, Storm said, adding that while some family members support release, others want offenders to spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Although Whitrock believes in second chances, she’s conflicted about what sentence Nathan should have received.
“My daughter is gone, and I want the person to pay for that,” Whitrock said.
“I don’t know what a long enough time is. I don’t know what is equal to losing my daughter.”
Hoping for parole
Following the Miller ruling, states such as Missouri and West Virginia have enacted laws granting parole eligibility — rather than resentencing hearings — to juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole.
States can prefer parole hearings because the process is simpler, said Amy Breihan, director of the St. Louis office of the MacArthur Justice Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm. Parole hearings do not require a jury or witnesses, she said.
The parole system is essential because it allows inmates to demonstrate how their young age affected their actions, University of Michigan law professor Kimberly Thomas said.
In 2016, Missouri made juvenile offenders eligible for parole after serving 25 years. One of the inmates affected by this statute was Norman Brown. In 1991, Brown, then 15, robbed a jewelry store with Herbert Smulls, then 33. Smulls fatally shot one person and injured another.
It is unclear where Brown was at the time, but he was unarmed, according to court records. Brown was sentenced to life without parole, but in light of the Missouri statute he became eligible for parole in 2016.
Brown said all he could think about before his parole hearing was apologizing to the victim’s family. To his disappointment, nobody in the room made eye contact with him, he said.
“It was like one of those things, ‘You don’t deserve to be here. You’re wasting our time, and our minds are made up,’” Brown said.
Two days after the hearing, Brown’s parole denial was delivered to him. The only reason given was the severity of his crime.
Brown’s more than 8,000 hours of rehabilitative work in prison was ignored, he said. So were mitigating factors, such as his drug-ridden household in a violent neighborhood, he added.
Brown and three other inmates, with the St. Louis office of the MacArthur Justice Center, filed a lawsuit in May 2017 against the Missouri Department of Corrections.
The suit alleged that parole hearings prevent release of deserving inmates because they last only 15 to 20 minutes, fail to consider juvenile maturity levels and deny access to legal counsel.
About 14 percent of eligible offenders convicted as juveniles have been granted parole in Missouri, according to data from the center.
U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey ruled in October 2018 that Missouri parole hearings indeed violated the constitutional rights of inmates convicted as juveniles.
Laughrey wrote that the state fails to explain how inmates who have been denied parole can make themselves better candidates for release and said inmates convicted as juveniles may be “subject to certain additional protections.”
In an email, the Missouri Department of Corrections declined to comment.
For now, Brown will not have another parole hearing until 2021.
Brown said he’s not the same person as he was previously.
“I’m not asking to be absolved of my guilt,” Brown said. “Rather, I’m asking you to look at me [now] and judge me.”
Dying behind bars
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have banned life in prison without parole sentences for juveniles, according to multiple sources. Others have not banned the sentence, but do not use it in practice.
“Miller raised as many questions as it answered because while it clearly forbids mandatory life without parole sentences … everything else is on the table,” the Juvenile Law Center’s Levick said.
In 2016, Nathan submitted an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court, arguing that his combined sentences functioned as life without parole in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Almost a year later, the court ruled 4-3 against Nathan, stating that “a defendant subjects himself to multiple punishments when he has committed multiple offenses.”
Nathan and his lawyer said they will continue to appeal the case on both the state and federal levels.
Nathan said he’s troubled by “guilt, shame, a lot [of] remorse” and by the possibility that he will die behind bars.
“So I go out, put on a mask, hoping nobody see [sic] the pain that I go through, holding back tears, you know, of sadness and just not facing the fact … that I might die in prison,” he said. “So, what’s the next day gon’ hold for me?”
Catherine Kim, Davis Rich and Erica Snow were interns for the Medill Justice Project in summer 2018. This reporting project was supervised by instructor Desiree Hanford. The Medill Justice Project supported this work. Allisha Azlan, Medill Justice Project associate, also contributed to this report.