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A handful of Utah prisoners once told they would never be freed from prison may be getting a review from the parole board, thanks to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The high court ruled last week that those who have been given a mandatory life without parole prison sentence before they were 18 years old should receive a review of their case. In response, the Utah parole board will grant reviews for the "very small number" of Utah cases where a juvenile has been given a life sentence, according to officials.
Change may also becoming for future offenders who could face life without parole sentences, as a state legislator is expected to present a bill that will end that sentencing option for youth.
Review • In their Monday decision, the U.S. Supreme Court justices were asked to decide whether their 2012 decision to strike down mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles was retroactive which would clear the way for a review of thousands of past cases nationwide.
The majority ruled that, yes, their decision was retroactive, and that those prisoners who demonstrate that "children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change" should be eligible for a chance to be free.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority ruling that states would not have to re-sentence those prisoners who were given life sentences in their youth but instead, they could grant them consideration for parole.
"Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity and who have since matured will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment," Kennedy wrote in the 6-3 decision.
While the majority did rule that those cases should be reviewed, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a scathing dissent, saying the majority has distorted case law as a "devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders."
In Utah, Board of Parole spokesman Greg Johnson said Wednesday that they will complete administrative reviews of the cases in question during the next two months.
"The date of the actual [parole] hearings is yet to be determined," Johnson said.
While those prisoners will be given reviews, it doesn't mean they will be guaranteed a parole date. Johnson said the review hearing will act as an "original parole hearing," where the board will consider the sentencing guidelines, minimum sentences, the nature of the offense and other factors before deciding when and if a parole date is scheduled.
Johnson did not immediately know how many inmates might be eligible for review, but said the number was small.
One of them is Robert Cameron Houston, who brutally raped and murdered a worker at a Clearfield home for troubled youths in 2006 when he was 17.
On Feb. 15, 2006, 22-year-old Raechale Elton gave Houston a ride from a residential treatment center to his independent living home because it was snowing and she did not want the youth to have to walk the four blocks in bad weather, according to court documents.
When they arrived at the home, Houston grabbed Elton, held a knife to her throat and raped her. When Elton would not stop screaming, the teen stabbed her in the side of the neck and slit her throat, then tried to break her neck and rip out her trachea, the documents say.
Houston then got into Elton's car and sped off, driving into a house in what he claimed was an attempt to kill himself.
In a deal with prosecutors, Houston pleaded guilty in 2nd District Court to aggravated murder, and charges of aggravated sexual assault and rape were dropped. After a sentencing hearing, a jury voted 11-1 to sentence him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Last year, in a split decision, the Utah Supreme Court upheld Houston's sentence.
Four of the high court justices agreed that the punishment was constitutional. But Justice Christine Durham, the lone dissenter, wrote that the sentence was unconstitutionally disproportionate for a juvenile and that Houston should have received the only other term available at the time of his 2007 sentencing, which was 20 years to life behind bars.
Another eligible inmate is Morris T. Mullins, who was 17 when he murdered 78-year-old Amy Davis in her Richfield home on May 2, 2001. Mullins pleaded guilty to aggravated murder to avoid the possibility of the death penalty, which the U.S. Supreme Court banned for juveniles four years later. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors dropped a rape charge
Marina Lowe, legislative and police counsel for the ACLU of Utah, called the court's decision a "really important move in the right direction," saying juveniles deserve different considerations than adult offenders when it comes to sentencing.
"We think it's a good thing," she said.
Legislative change? • Meanwhile, a Utah legislator is expected to propose a bill that would eliminate life-without-parole sentences for youth in the future.
Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, will sponsor the bill but he was tight-lipped about the details of the proposed legislation. When contacted on Wednesday, Lowry declined to comment on the bill, saying he didn't want to speak about it because it was still being drafted. He said that he expects it will be filed this week .
Lowe said the ACLU is part of a coalition of groups supporting the end of life sentences for juveniles, and said they are waiting to see the language in Snow's bill.
"We are very excited about it," she said. "We think it's a great step for the state of Utah to be taking."
Pamela Vickrey, executive director for Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, said the Utah Board of Juvenile Justice also supports a bill that would recognize children are different than adults.
"It is common sense that we would apply this same rationale to how we treat children who commit serious crimes," she said. "I recognize children can and do commit serious crimes, however, and they need to be held accountable in a way which recognizes their unique attributes and focus on rehabilitation."
Vickrey said research shows that human brains are not fully formed until well after adolescence, which further supports ending the practice of locking up kids for the rest of their lives without the chance to ever receive a review.
She added that giving juveniles the opportunity for parole doesn't mean they will get a guaranteed promise of release, and that it is ultimately up to the parole board when and if a prisoner is freed.
"There isn't any harm," she said. "Because the parole board still has the ability to say, 'You're not getting out.' "