Adolfo Davis had been 14 years old for just two months when he made the mistake that changed his life.
In October 1990, he was living on Chicago’s South Side with a grandmother who could barely care for him. His father was gone. His mother was a drug addict. He was teased because he often wore the same clothes to school. He committed petty crimes to get money for food. He found family in a gang, and one night, two much older gang members brought him along on what he believed was going to be a robbery. Two men were killed, though Davis never fired his gun.
An 8th grader when the crime occurred, Davis was tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
On March 20, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether juveniles like Davis should receive life sentences without parole for murder. The cases in front of the court involve 14-year-olds from Alabama and Arkansas, but advocates hope that the court will rule in favor of the youths and extend its ruling to all who committed murder as a juvenile. Already, the court has ruled unconstitutional sentencing laws providing life terms for crimes other than murder and has outlawed the death penalty for juveniles.
Since Davis was sent to prison, he has turned his life around, according to his attorneys. He has renounced his gang membership, has gotten an education, writes poetry and helps steer youngsters away from the gang life. Next month, the now 35-year-old who has spent two decades behind bars _ more years than he was free _ will have a hearing before the Prisoner Review Board; he is seeking clemency from Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. He has support from clergy and even some job offers.
Because Davis is not eligible for parole, a commutation is his only option to prove he has been rehabilitated and deserves his freedom.
“He should have a chance to have a chance. Right now, he doesn’t have the opportunity to show somebody he’s been rehabilitated,” said attorney Joshua Sohn, a lawyer with the firm DLA Piper in New York, who argues that Davis’ sentence is too harsh for someone so young. “He’s acknowledged he was there and he’s responsible for what he did. But it’s not too late to save his life and give him an opportunity. That’s all he wants.”
In Illinois, where Davis was sentenced, the laws on juvenile murderers date to the late 1970s, when crime by juveniles was on the rise. The violent crime wave of the late 1980s and early 1990s, much of it tied to the crack cocaine epidemic, hardened tough-on-crime views, as did predictions of a generation of super-predators.
So it is that in Illinois children as young as 13 can be sentenced to life without parole, often in cases in which the sentence is mandatory. At 15 or older, juveniles can be sentenced to life without parole even if they merely acted as a lookout or the driver of a getaway car and were unaware that their co-defendants had weapons or were planning to commit murder.
Those predictions of super-predators, however, never came to pass. And advances in our understanding of brain development show that juveniles have little impulse control or the capability to fully consider or appreciate the lifetime of consequences some of their actions hold. At the same time, experts say juveniles have a greater capacity for rehabilitation, particularly if they are given the right treatment.
What’s more, advocates say offenders so young cannot meaningfully help with their defense. Mandatory life without parole sentences, meantime, strip judges of the opportunity to consider the background or other circumstances that might argue against a natural life sentence.
Not that advocates want all juveniles released. They simply say the door should never shut to the possibility of a life outside prison.
“It’s not a guarantee of parole. It’s the opportunity for parole,” said Lawrence Wojcik, an attorney at the firm DLA Piper in Chicago and the lead author of a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the American Bar Association. “A juvenile has a less developed sense of right and wrong. They should have the opportunity to prove that, at some point, they have been rehabilitated and they are fit to rejoin the community.”
Opponents say that murderers sentenced to life without parole, no matter how young, do not deserve the chance to be free. Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins is among those opponents. She worked hard to end the death penalty in Illinois but parts company with fellow criminal justice reform advocates on this issue, in large part because it will force the families of victims to again confront tragedies when inmates apply for release.
Her opposition is based in personal experience. Her pregnant sister and her brother-in-law were murdered in April 1990 when 16-year-old David Biro forced them into the basement of their Winnetka, Ill., home and shot them to death as they pleaded for their lives, a horrific crime discovered by her father. Biro is serving a life without parole sentence.
“It is an utter violation of due process for them to say that a finalized case, a finalized sentence, that they would reopen that,” said Bishop-Jenkins, who is president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers and director of Illinoisvictims.org. “We never get to be free of this guy. He gets a shot at release, but my family never gets freedom from this. This will change everything for victim’s families.”
Bishop-Jenkins said she does not oppose some change in new cases _ although she believes that judges should have the flexibility to impose a life-without-parole sentence in the most heinous cases. But it is the old cases in which witnesses have died or evidence can no longer be found that she said are the most troubling. That, she said, will make it more difficult for the families of victims to mount opposition when an inmate comes up for parole.
“It’s the bait-and-switch that’s so torturous,” she said. “We walked away from that case 21 years ago believing it was over.”
But Wojcik said such changes, while painful for victims’ families, are normal when the Supreme Court declares a law unconstitutional.
“They’re saying, ‘Now you’re putting the impetus on us to show up.’ That’s true,” said Wojcik, adding that judges might impose longer sentences if life without parole is taken away. “But we all have to play by the same rules, and if the court says this sentence is unconstitutional, then it never should have been imposed in the first place.”
Before he went to jail, Larod Styles, like Adolfo Davis, had gotten into some trouble _ but nothing approaching what happened when Styles was 16. That was when he and three others were charged with the December 1995 murders of two men gunned down in an auto sales office on the city’s South Side during a robbery. Because he was 16, he was automatically tried as an adult. Although someone else was the alleged triggerman, Styles was still convicted of murder. Because two people were killed, he was subject to a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Nevertheless, Styles’ attorney believes he deserves an opportunity to prove he has been rehabilitated and a chance to again be free.
“He has the intellect and ability and demeanor to be a productive member of society,” said the attorney, Terence Campbell. “Put aside whether he was involved or not _ and we believe we have the evidence that he was not. Shouldn’t he have the chance to show he deserves what really amounts to a first chance.”
Styles, who was in high school when he was arrested, has tried to educate himself during the 14 or so years he has been in prison, said Campbell. Meantime, his lawyers have pressed an innocence claim, which is based largely on a challenge to his confession and new fingerprint evidence which they say points to another man as the real perpetrator. Although so far unsuccessful in court, Styles is not bitter, according to Campbell. He just wants to someday win his freedom and again see the outside world.
“To throw away a kid’s life at age 16 is monumental waste of time, money, resources and human capital,” said Campbell. “At a minimum, shouldn’t there be some discretion for the judge to look at his background and his life? Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile offender can’t be the way the justice system works.”