Judge opens door for Michigan juvenile lifers

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DETROIT All Michigan inmates serving no-parole sentences for murder committed as juveniles are entitled to a chance at release, a judge said Wednesday, declaring that a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision applies retroactively.

The decision by U.S. District Judge John Corbett O'Meara trumps a ruling last fall by the state appeals court, which said most people already behind bars wouldn't benefit.

At issue in Michigan is how to follow a 2012 Supreme Court decision that struck down mandatory no-parole sentences for those who were under 18 when they committed crimes, mostly murder. The court said it's cruel and unusual punishment. The state has more than 350 prisoners in that category.

Compliance with the Supreme Court decision "requires providing a fair and meaningful possibility of parole to each and every Michigan prisoner who was sentenced to life for a crime committed as a juvenile," O'Meara said.

He told the state attorney general and inmates' lawyers to propose a way to hold parole hearings. Those next steps will be litigated for months.

"If ever there was a legal rule that should — as a matter of law and morality — be given retroactive effect, it is the rule announced in Miller," the judge said in his six-page ruling, referring to the Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama. "To hold otherwise would allow the state to impose unconstitutional punishment on some persons but not others, an intolerable miscarriage of justice."

Deborah LaBelle, a lawyer who sued on behalf of inmates, said it's a "fantastic" decision.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, who opposed any benefit for current prisoners, is considering an appeal.

"He will continue to fight for crime victims and their families, who should not be forced to relive these horrific crimes at parole hearings," Schuette spokeswoman Joy Yearout said.

LaBelle and the American Civil Liberties Union sued in 2010 to strike down a Michigan law that bars people from seeking parole if they're serving a life sentence for first-degree murder committed as a juvenile. While the case was pending, the Supreme Court in June said mandatory no-parole punishments for teens violated the U.S. Constitution, giving O'Meara more legal precedent.

The oldest Michigan inmate serving a no-parole sentence for committing murder as a teen is Sheldry Topp, 68, who's been in prison since 1962.

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