Colorado's Juvie Lifers Have Shot at Freedom After Supreme Court Decision

Thousands of prisoners across the country who were sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes committed when they were juveniles could soon have their sentences significantly reduced thanks to a United States Supreme Court ruling on Monday. That group includes more than forty juvie lifers in Colorado, most of whom have been behind bars for decades.

In 2012, the Supremes ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The 5-4 decision didn't preclude the possibility that a teen killer could receive a life sentence, but it required that the penalty be based on individual circumstances; a one-size-fits-all sentencing scheme doesn't take into account an offender's age and other mitigating factors, the court decided. But the decision had little impact on Colorado's LWOP population; for years the legislature and the state courts argued over how to interpret the ruling, and last year, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the ruling wasn't retroactive and couldn't be applied to defendants who'd already exhausted their direct appeals. 

This week's decision, though, declares that the ban on mandatory life imprisonment is retroactive. It comes in a case brought by Henry Montgomery, a Louisiana man who, at the age of seventeen, killed a deputy sheriff in Louisiana. Montgomery has now spent five decades in prison and become a model prisoner. Writing for the 6-3 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy opined that "prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored."

A dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, complains that the decision interferes with state rights and "is just a devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders."

But advocates for Colorado's juvenile lifers — several of whom, including Erik Jensen, Jacob Ind, and Jeff Johnson, have been subjects of Westword investigations — welcomed the ruling as bringing clarity to a frustrating impasse in Colorado. "Everyone felt we would eventually get retroactivity, but not on this case," says Mary Ellen Johnson, director of the Denver-based Pendulum Foundation, which advocates for juvenile lifers nationwide. "It does seem to open the door to all sorts of things. This is a much better and more comprehensive ruling than we expected." 

It's not clear at this point whether Colorado's juvenile lifers would face individual resentencing hearings, go before a parole board, or have their sentences cut by legislative action. In 2006, the state changed the kind of sentences it can give juveniles who face charges in adult court, capping a "life" sentence at forty years before parole eligibility. But those convicted of homicides and other serious crimes prior to that didn't get any reconsideration — not until this week. 

For more about the controversy over juvenile lifers in Colorado, see our 2012 feature "The Old Boys." 
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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