Colorado's Juvenile Lifers Still in Legal Limbo

This week's cover story, “The Long Way Home,” examines the unusual, long-running fallout from a fatal hit-and-run on the streets of Aurora. The 1991 incident took the life of one sixteen-year-old, Danny Goetsch, and sent another, Dietrick Mitchell, to the state prison system – where he remains 24 years later, despite having his sentence commuted by Governor Bill Ritter in 2011.

Mitchell and his supporters claim that Goetsch's death was a drunken accident. Prosecutors contended that Mitchell deliberately ran Goetsch down and may have mistaken him for a rival gang member. A jury found him guilty of murder “with extreme indifference” and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. That makes him one of 51 prisoners in Colorado serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles. All of them were convicted before 2006, when the law that mandated life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicides in adult court was changed; the maximum sentence for juveniles is now forty years to life.

Mitchell's commutation, which might result in his release as early as next year, puts him in a different situation than most of the juvie lifers, who have been in limbo awaiting some modification of their sentence. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory life sentences for juvenile killers are unconstitutional and that those sentences must be recalculated. But just how that directive will be implemented in Colorado isn't clear; for the past three years, lawmakers and criminal justice professionals have been arguing over the best way to address the problem.

Last year, the Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments from lawyers representing three juvenile offenders currently serving life without parole (LWOP). The state would like to see the LWOP sentences transformed into forty-year sentences with the possibility of parole thereafter; defense attorneys have pushed for some option that would allow more variation of sentence depending on individual circumstances, in keeping with the federal ruling. But so far, no ruling has come from the Colorado justices on the issue, and no legislation has been passed to clarify the fate of the state's juvie lifers. "I'm just hoping that we actually get some legislation passed this year," says Mary Ellen Johnson, director of the Pendulum Foundation, which advocates for prisoners convicted as teens. "I just feel we've let them down."

Another possibility, at least on paper, is for other juvie lifers to seek commutations of their own. But the juvenile clemency board that Ritter established has been abolished under the governorship of John Hickenlooper. As we've previously reported, Hickenlooper didn't even get around to appointing his executive clemency advisory board during his first term in office — there were no meetings, no pardons, and thus no controversy. All seven seats on the board have since been filled, but that crew now has a backlog of roughly 150 requests for pardons and commutations to wade through that's piled up over the years. 

Of course, granting such relief is entirely discretionary. Nothing entitles a felon to sentence reconsideration if a court hasn't ordered it. But in the case of the juvie lifers, the highest court found their sentences illegal nearly three years ago — and nothing has changed. 
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast