Will juvenile lifers get a reprieve? Inside Colorado Supreme Court hearing

This week, Colorado Supreme Court justices heard arguments from lawyers representing three juvenile offenders currently serving mandatory life without parole -- a sentence now considered unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's decision in one of these cases could affect how Colorado treats its juvenile offenders going forward.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. This decision recognized that mandatory sentences ignored the possibility of maturity, as well as the changeable qualities of recklessness and irresponsibility associated with youth. Nearly two years later, though, there's been no change in the sentences of the fifty inmates currently serving LWOP sentences for juvenile offenses. This hearing, held on Tuesday, was designed to consider possible changes.

Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director of the Pendulum Foundation, an organization that advocates on behalf of juvenile lifers, notes that the Tuesday hearing was a long time coming. Over the last two years, she says, Pendulum sought to submit a bill to get the inmates resentenced. The proposal lost its Republican sponsor in 2013, however -- and when the foundation tried to resubmit the bill this year, the governor backed out, Johnson says, reportedly because he didn't want any controversy over the issue after the murder of Tom Clements, head of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

"People do not seem to be concerned that they are serving unconstitutional sentences," Johnson says. "They are putting politics above what is right."

For Johnson, the Colorado Supreme Court's decision to finally hold the hearing felt like a form of vindication after a long fight for the juvenile lifers, she says. The three cases presented Tuesday were those of Michael Tate, Tenarro Banks and Erik Jensen, all represented by different defense attorneys pushing for alternate forms of resentencing.

Michael Tate was sixteen when he murdered Steven Fitzgerald during a house burglary gone wrong in 2004. Fitzgerald's son was Tate's accomplice in the robbery. Fifteen-year-old Banks murdered Byris Williams, a teenage boy, for wearing a red sports jersey to a party -- the color, steeped in gang symbolism, reportedly offended Banks. Both Tate and Banks have been incarcerated for close to ten years.

Jensen's case is even more complex, as detailed in Luke Turf's piece "Headed for Trouble." It is still up for debate if Jensen was actually involved in the murder of Julie Ybanez, or whether he was just part of the cleanup operation for Nate, the victim's son and his close friend. Either way, his complicity got him convicted of first-degree murder in 2005 at the age of seventeen. He is now 32.

Continue for more about this week's Colorado Supreme Court hearing about juvenile life sentences.

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Kayla Hollenbaugh

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