Ruling but no resolution on which teen killers merit parole

Nearly two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prison inmates who killed as teenagers are capable of change, the question remains unresolved: Which ones deserve a second chance?

Now the ruling — in favor of a 71-year-old Louisiana inmate still awaiting a parole hearing — is being tested again in that state, where prosecutors have moved to keep 1 in 3 offenders imprisoned for crimes committed as juveniles locked up for good.

“There is no possible way to square these numbers with the directive of the Supreme Court,” said Jill Pasquarella, supervising attorney with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which found that district attorneys are seeking to deny parole eligibility to 84 of 255 juvenile life inmates.

Some prosecutors said the heinous nature of many of the inmates’ crimes makes them the rare offenders the court allows to be punished with life behind bars.

“In this community, some of the most violent crimes we’ve had have been committed by juveniles,” said Ricky Babin, district attorney for Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes, who is seeking new life-without-parole sentences in four of five cases.

The moves by Louisiana prosecutors echo those by Michigan district attorneys, who want to keep two-thirds of that state’s 363 juvenile lifers behind bars permanently. Prosecutors and advocates agree that the Supreme Court will eventually need to step back into the debate over punishment of juvenile offenders.

“It’s definitely clear now that the court does need to … clarify that life without parole is unconstitutional for all children,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

The court’s January 2016 ruling extended a ban on mandatory life without parole for juveniles to those already in prison for murder, reserving the punishment only for those whose crimes reflect “irreparable corruption.” The decision brought resentencings and the release of dozens of inmates in some states but inconsistency in others, an Associated Press investigation found.

A new Louisiana law makes juvenile lifers eligible for parole after 25 years, unless prosecutors intervene. Prosecutors, who had through October to ask a judge to deny parole eligibility, said they reviewed offenders’ crimes and prison records and talked with victims’ families.

“These are all sensitive cases to victims. They lost a loved one in this,” said Scott Stassi, first assistant district attorney for Point Coupee, West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes. His office is seeking life without parole in all four of its cases.

Prosecutors said they want to ensure scrutiny of inmates. But the particulars of each crime and offender, and the politics surrounding the cases, complicate decisions.

Take the cases of Patrick Wilson and Anthony Williams, who were 16 and 17 when they killed a man in 1995 for drugs and money. Each shot the victim, with Wilson fingered at trial for firing two shots to the man’s head. Prosecutors want to keep Williams locked up for life but are not opposing Wilson’s chance for eventual release.

Tracey Barbera, first assistant district attorney in East Baton Rouge Parish, said she did not review the cases, but believed the inmates’ prison records were key in deciding to oppose parole eligibility for one and not the other. In the last two years, Wilson had a single infraction, for possession of contraband. Williams’ lengthier record includes seven violations in 2016 for disrespect, contraband and disobedience.

Williams and Wilson declined interview requests. But in an email exchange with the AP, Wilson said he has been working as a prison hospice volunteer while studying the law on juvenile offenders.

“I came here as a teenager and was forced to raise myself among strangers,” wrote Wilson, 39. “Now I been here longer than I lived free among my family and friends.”

Brenda Johnson, mother of victim Tony Williams, said she is open to the possibility that her son’s killers deserve a chance for release.

“I prayed to God they would get out, and one thing I want them to do is change their life,” she said.

Some district attorneys in Louisiana said they asked for life without parole out of an abundance of caution.

“It’s a real problem trying to assess someone’s behavior in the future when they’ve been in for such a long time,” said Carla Sigler, assistant district attorney for Calcasieu Parish, whose office filed for life without parole in all its seven active cases.

New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Jr., seeking to deny release to 30 inmates, said the decisions should have been left to the parole board, because it can better assess how offenders may have changed. The board will pass judgment on inmates whose parole eligibility is not opposed by prosecutors, and disputed cases will be argued before a judge.

Public defenders are pushing back against efforts to keep so many juvenile lifers in prison.

Harry Fontenot, chief public defender in Calcasieu Parish, said full resentencings would cost more than $400,000 for an office already struggling with a $2.1 million budget. “We cannot handle these cases,” he said. “We just don’t have the money or the expertise.”

E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said it is inevitable that the nation’s top court will be pushed to weigh in.

“Ultimately,” he said, “whatever the court says we’ll abide by.”