Victims, Legal Experts Make Case for Life without Parole for Some Juvenile Offenders
August 18, 2009 - 6:00 PMIn the fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether sentencing teenagers to a life sentence without the possibility of parole constitutes "cruel and unusual" punishment, specifically in the cases of two Florida teens.
But legal experts and those whose loved ones have been killed by juvenile offenders are speaking out in advance of the high court hearing on Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida. They say some offenders who are younger than 18. should be incarcerated indefinitely.
On the legal front, the conservative Heritage Foundation released a study on Monday, called “Adult Time for Adult Crimes,” which documented 16 murder cases perpetrated by teens and built a case for why a life sentence without the possibility of parole for juveniles is not only necessary in rare cases, but constitutional.
Families of those who died at the hands of juveniles make an even more compelling argument as to why some offenders are a danger to society and should not be granted a parole hearing or set free.
“I’m going to talk about some things in my life that I have not spoken about in public before,” said Daniel Horowitz, a prominent California defense attorney who was on a panel Monday to introduce Heritage’s report.
He also is the widower of Pamela Vitale, who was killed on Oct. 15, 2005 by 16-year-old Scott Edgar Dyleski, a neighbor who was known at his school for his artwork featuring satanic symbols.
“When I came home, what I found was my wife lying on the floor, beaten, blood everywhere; sprayed on the walls, the furniture moved,” Horowitz said. “What I didn’t see was the fact that as she lay there dying but alive, the perpetrator had taken a knife and opened up her belly to remove her organs while she was alive.
“And when she died, he carved into her back his sign, his symbol, his satanic symbol that he used on his artwork,” Horowitz said.
In the Florida cases in the appellate court and in other literature produced by liberal groups like Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, the argument has been made that “children” under the age of 18 are not fully developed and so are less culpable than adults who commit the same crime.
The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that protects citizens from the federal government imposing “cruel and unusual punishment” is also cited.
These groups and attorneys representing Sullivan and Graham also cite Roper v. Simmons, the 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said sentencing offenders under the age of 18 to death was unconstitutional.
But experts say the facts of cases of juveniles who have been convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole are “reasonable and constitutional” and accepted as such by state law in 43 states, in the District of Columbia and by the federal government.
“Contrary to activists’ argument, the Constitution does not forbid use of the sentence,” The Heritage Foundation report says. “The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ was intended to bar only the most ‘inhuman and barbarous’ punishments, like torture.
“Though the Supreme Court has departed from this original meaning, it has honored the principle that the courts should defer to lawmakers in setting sentences in almost every instance,” the report says.
“That’s what this is about, whether or not life without parole can remain an option,” Paul Wallace, chief of appeals, Delaware Department of Justice, said at Monday’s event at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
“In a constitutional context, the United States Supreme Court has always said for those crimes, for those specific offences, it is an option, both for adults and juveniles and that’s why legislators, overall, have endorsed the use of that sentence – at least as a possibility,” he added.
Some of the 16 case studies detailed in the report reveal the chilling nature of murders committed by teens.
- On Aug. 4, 2001, Ralph David Cruz, Jr., armed with a .40 caliber semi-automatic handgun, shot Lucila Bojorquez in the head while she sat in a car with her 6-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. Cruz drove off in the car with the children inside. Their bodies were found a short time later; both had been shot in the head and Jenny had a hole in her hand, evidence that she had tried to shield herself. Cruz was 16 when he committed the crime.
- On June 14, 2004, Martize M. Smolley shot and killed a mother and daughter as they stopped at an ATM on their way to an ice cream parlor. He shot Kelly Houser in the head as she stopped to use the ATM, and the bullet traveled through her head and into the head of her daughter, Amy. Smolley, who told a friend before the murders that he was going to get some money, was 16 when he committed the crime.
- On Feb. 24, 1989, Donald Torres broke into his neighbor’s home, doused the floor with kerosene, set the house ablaze and watched as the flames spread. Harry and Jennifer Godt and their son and daughter, Jon, 4 and Jennifer 1 ½, died in the fire. Torres later bragged to friends that he started the fire. He was 14.
The Heritage report also reveals the inaccuracy of many of the “reports” by anti-incarceration groups, including 2,225 as the number of juveniles serving life sentences without parole.
The number appears in a 2005 report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and has been used extensively since to advocate against the sentences. The actual number, the Heritage report says, is closer to about 1,300.
The way the juvenile offenders are portrayed in the literature by these advocacy groups also is misleading, according to Heritage.
Many of the photos used in the literature are of child actors, not the actual youths convicted of crimes, including rape and murder.
A 2007 report by the Equal Justice Initiative described Ashley Jones this way: “At 14, Ashley tried to escape the violence and abuse by running away with an older boyfriend who shot and killed her grandmother and aunt. Her grandmother and sister, who were injured in the offence, want Ashley to come home.”
The judge’s account of the facts are in sharp contrast to that description:
“When Ashley realized her aunt was still breathing, she hit her in the head with a heater, stabbed her in the chest and attempted to set her room on fire. As 10-year-old Mary Jones (Ashley’s sister) attempted to run, Ashley grabbed her and began hitting her. (Ashley’s boyfriend) put the gun in Mary’s face and told her that that was how she would die. Ashley intervened and said, ‘No, let me do it,’ and proceeded to stab her little sister fourteen times.”
Several people attending the event said they have experienced first-hand the loss of a loved one to a juvenile offender.
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins’sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, was 25 and pregnant with her first child in 1990 when she and her 28-year-old husband, Richard Langert, were killed when a stranger broke into their home and shot them in the head and Nancy in her belly.
David Biro was four weeks shy of his 17th birthday when he killed the couple and their unborn child – the age of adulthood in Illinois where the crime was committed.
Bishop-Jenkins and another sister founded the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers more than 16 years after the crime as the debate about sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole heated up in recent years.
In Illinois, Bishop-Jenkins and other members of her organization have twice helped defeat legislation in the state that would ban the sentencing.
She told CNSNews.com that the main goal of the organization is for surviving victims of crimes committed by juvenile offenders to be notified if parole hearings are planned and are consulted before a decision is made by the courts.
Much of the legislation being proposed around the country would retroactively provide those sentenced to life without parole to be given parole hearings.
“All the stakeholders need to be at the table,” Bishop-Jenkins said. “The problem with the offender advocates right now is they have spent millions putting out these glossy reports and advocating for the offenders.
“They are only talking to the offenders,” Bishop-Jenkins said. “They may even be well-intentioned and they may not be intending to lie, but they are talking to the offenders and then they are putting out their stories, and guess what, not surprisingly, they’re wrong.”
Charles Stimson, senior legal fellow at the Center of Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation and co-author of the study who spoke at the event, said it is “an effort to set the record straight.”
“A very, very small percentage of the worst juvenile offenders, the ones that we highlight in our 16 case digest, deserve a fair trial, got a fair trial and we justly sentenced to a constitutional sentence of life without parole,” Stimson said.
“The facts are these: Most juvenile deserve to be treated in the juvenile justice system. Everyone up here agrees with that,” Stimson said. “A very few percentage of juveniles need to be treated with the adult courts if the state so recognizes the ability of juveniles to be waived up to adult court.”