NEW YORK — Nearly two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prison inmates who killed as teenagers are capable of change and may deserve eventual freedom, the question remains unresolved: Which ones should get a second chance?
Now the ruling — which came in the case of a 71-year-old Louisiana inmate still awaiting a parole hearing — is being tested again in that same state, where prosecutors have moved in recent months to keep about 1 in 3 former juvenile offenders locked up for the rest of their lives.
“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 whose cases are up for review.
Some prosecutors countered that the heinousness of some of the crimes makes these inmates the rare teen offenders the court said could still 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 has filed motions seeking new life-without-parole sentences in four of five cases.
The moves by Louisiana prosecutors echo the aggressive approach in Michigan, where district attorneys are seeking to keep two-thirds of 363 juvenile life inmates behind bars for good. That state’s cases have been on hold for months now awaiting a ruling on whether judges or juries should decide them.
The friction prompts agreement by prosecutors and advocates that the nation’s highest court likely needs to step back into the debate over how the U.S. punishes 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. “We’ve seen in certain states, in certain jurisdictions, that the standard that was set by the court … is one that prosecutors and judges don’t necessarily feel compelled to follow.”
The court’s January 2016 ruling extended a ban on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders to those already in prison for murders committed when they were under 18. The decision didn’t lay out specific procedures for states to follow in reviewing the cases of those 2,000-plus inmates nationwide. Rather it said only that a lifetime behind bars should be reserved for the “rarest” offenders whose crimes reflect “irreparable corruption.”
The court cited research showing the brains of adolescents are still developing, and found that punishing teens with the same severity as adults is cruel and unusual and fails to account for the differences of youth or the potential for rehabilitation.
The decision ushered in a wave of new sentences and the release of dozens of inmates in states from Pennsylvania to Michigan, Arkansas and beyond — but also brought confusion and inconsistent approaches in other states, an Associated Press investigation earlier this year found.
In Louisiana, a law that took effect in August makes former teen offenders with no-release life terms eligible for parole after serving 25 years — unless a prosecutor intervenes. District attorneys had until the end of October to ask a judge to deny parole eligibility.
Several district attorneys refused to discuss individual cases, and court paperwork they filed does not detail arguments against release. But prosecutors said their decisions were based on reviews of offenders’ crimes, their records in prison and talks 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 proper scrutiny of inmates, most who were 15, 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes, with the oldest now in their 70s.
Louisiana is being closely watched because the state has so many cases — only Pennsylvania and Michigan have more — and its justice system has a reputation for stiff punishment.
A new U.S. Supreme Court petition filed by Pasquarella’s group and the national Juvenile Law Center calls out Louisiana for continuing to sentence juveniles to life without parole in 62 percent of new cases since 2012, including those in which offenders were convicted of second-degree murder. The petition seeks an outright ban on life without parole for juveniles; 20 states and the District of Columbia already prohibit the sentence for teens.
But as resentencings continue for those already in prison, the particulars of each crime and each inmate, and the politics and emotions surrounding the cases, make decisions anything but straightforward.
Take the cases of Patrick Wilson and Anthony Williams, who were 16 and 17 when they killed a man together in 1995 for drugs and money.
Each carried a gun and shot the victim. At trial, prosecutors fingered Wilson as the one responsible for firing two fatal shots to the man’s head.
But while East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors have asked a judge to keep Williams locked up for life, they’ve decided not to oppose Wilson’s chance for release.
“I panicked because, you know, it has been 22 years and I had to face this over again,” said the victim’s mother, Brenda Johnson, recounting the call informing her that the inmates’ sentences were up for review. The killers, who grew up in the same neighborhood with Johnson’s 20-year-old son, Tony, forced him across train tracks not far from Louisiana State University. His body was found later in heavy brush.
Johnson said prosecutors told her that Williams has had a checkered disciplinary record in prison. Tracey Barbera, first assistant district attorney in East Baton Rouge Parish, said she did not handle review of the case, but believed the difference in the two inmates’ prison records was key to the decision to oppose parole eligibility for one, but allow it for the other.
“The Lord said you’re supposed to forgive,” Johnson said. “I prayed to God they would get out, and one thing I want them to do is change their life.”
The question of change is supposed to be central to whether offenders deserve an opportunity for release, but some Louisiana district attorneys said they asked for life again 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. None of us are psychics,” said Carla Sigler, assistant district attorney for Calcasieu Parish. Her office filed for life without parole in all seven of its active cases.
Then, there’s the case of Thongxay Nilakout, who at 17 was the gunman in the death of 64-year-old Gisela Pfleger. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years to life.
Pfleger’s daughter, Birte Pfleger, plans to testify against him at his resentencing hearing, likely to take place in 2018.
“Some people argue that juveniles make stupid mistakes and that they deserve a second chance. I agree. But when is the crime too horrendous to count as a mistake?” she said in a written essay to The Associated Press. “In my view, shooting someone in cold blood is not a stupid mistake. Dropping out of high school, getting involved in drugs, or stealing designer sunglasses are actions that qualify as stupid mistakes. Robbing my parents, stealing their car, and pushing them to the ground would have been a stupid mistake. Conspiring to commit robbery and taking a loaded gun to use as a tool during that robbery is not a mistake. It shows planning and intent to use deadly force. Killing a 64-year old, 4-foot-11, 110-pound cancer survivor and leaving her husband for dead are unforgivable crimes that had and continue to have irreparable and irrevocable consequences.”
In New Orleans, with more juvenile life cases than any other judicial district in Louisiana, prosecutors are seeking to deny 30 inmates a chance for parole. The district has 64 cases, but nearly a quarter had been resolved before the new law took effect.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Jr. said the decisions should have been left to the state’s parole board, because it is better able than prosecutors to assess how inmates may have changed. The board will pass judgment on inmates whose parole eligibility is not opposed by prosecutors, but cases in dispute will be argued before a judge.
“They’re asking us to make a determination of was this person the worst of the worst,” Cannizzaro said. When someone commits murder, “I believe at that moment in that juvenile’s life that he is the worst of the worst human beings. … However, that may have been 40 years ago. I believe that people can change, and I believe that person may have been rehabilitated.”
Public defenders in the state are pushing back against the idea that so many juvenile lifers should stay in prison. Putting the cases back before a judge will require time-consuming and expensive investigations of offenders’ lives as teens and the details of long-ago crimes.
Harry Fontenot, chief public defender in Calcasieu Parish, said full resentencing hearings, at a state estimate of $58,000 each, would cost more than $400,000 for an office already struggling to make do on 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, thinks it is inevitable that the nation’s top court will be pressed to weigh in as prosecutors test the boundaries of the 2016 ruling. “Ultimately, whatever the court says we’ll abide by,” he said.
The Supreme Court recently declined to hear two related cases, including an Idaho petition asking the justices for an all-out ban on juvenile life without parole.
For now, that leaves decisions to local prosecutors, judges and parole officials. But cases like those of the inmates who killed Johnson’s son point to the complexities.
One of them, Patrick Wilson, grew up three doors down from the victim, and their mothers knew each other well. Johnson’s son was dealing crack cocaine, prosecutors said at the time, and Wilson and Williams knew he carried cash. Johnson wonders if tensions over a girlfriend also played a role in the crime.
The inmates’ prison records show that in the last two years, Wilson had a single infraction, for possession of contraband. Williams has a lengthier record, including seven violations in 2016 for breaking rules on disrespect, contraband and disobedience.
Williams and Wilson declined to be interviewed, but in an email exchange with the AP, Wilson said that for nearly five years he has worked as a hospice volunteer in the Louisiana State Penitentiary’s hospital ward, caring for dying inmates, while studying the evolving law on juvenile offenders.
“I came here as a teenager and was forced to raise myself among strangers,” wrote Wilson, who is 39 and could be eligible for a parole hearing in 2021. “Now I been here longer than I lived free among my family and friends.”
Johnson said that whether the two inmates stay in prison or win parole won’t bring her son back. But she is open to the possibility that they may have changed from who they were as teens and could deserve a chance for release, she said.
“Don’t come back out here and think you can rule the streets,” she said. “If they redeemed themselves, they’ll be OK.”