There are about 100 inmates in Missouri who were told as teenagers they would die behind bars for murder. All of them are now eligible for parole after serving 25 years due to two U.S. Supreme Court decisions and a change in state law.
But only three of the 23 men who’ve asked for their freedom know when they’re going home — a ratio that advocates say is unconstitutional.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional going forward, followed by a 2016 state law that made that segment of the prison population eligible for parole.
Word spread fast among prisoners, 46-year-old Liddell Wilson said.
“There was excitement,” according to Wilson, who was 15 in 1987 when he shot and killed a man on a St. Louis street, which earned him a lifetime behind bars.
Though Wilson was eligible to ask for parole as soon as the law changed on Aug. 28, 2016, he waited until November to request a hearing. He was confident he’d be successful.
“I knew that I was doing all of the things that I was supposed to be doing,” he said.
The board disagreed. Wilson was denied parole in April, and can’t request another hearing until 2022. He said the board ignored the work he does with older inmates and the classes he’s taken to help him understand how his crime affected the people around him — classes he called “very revealing of things that are required of us as human beings.”
“They didn’t say I was rehabilitated. All they focused on was the actual event. It’s 30 years later, and that’s all they spoke about in their denial,” Wilson said.
Johnathan Collier, 44, had an experience similar to Wilson’s.
Collier was convicted of murder after he shot and killed a man near Kansas City when he was 17, and received life without parole. After an adjustment period during which he went to solitary confinement several times for breaking prison rules, he began taking classes and, later, did community service. He estimates he’s got about 10,000 hours under his belt.
He’s also earned the right to care for hospice patients at the prison in Licking, about two hours southwest of St. Louis. But when Collier went in front of the parole board in December, they weren’t interested in letting him out.
“I had created a horrible ripple effect by committing my crime,” Collier said. “And so while you can’t unring a bell, I wanted to create another ripple effect that would be positive into society. And that wasn’t even discussed. In fact, it was looked over.”
Like Wilson, Collier can’t ask for parole again until 2022.
The experience of Wilson, Collier, and other juvenile lifers who have been denied parole prompted the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis to sue Missouri in federal court, arguing that the way the state handles those parole hearings is unconstitutional.
“The hearings are relatively short, the individuals don’t get to talk to everyone who will be making a decision about their lives, they’re only allowed to have one person present, and they aren’t allowed to see the evidence against them,” MacArthur Justice Center staff attorney Amy Breihan said. “The whole process is historically dysfunctional and secretive.”
The center’s attorneys discovered earlier this year that a former member of the parole board, Don Ruzicka, would try to get inmates to say words like armadillo, platypus and hootenanny during hearings. Collier’s attorney, Kent Gipson, said Ruzicka, who resigned in June, was part of Collier’s parole hearing in December, but did not play the game during the hearing.
A phone number could not be located for Ruzicka.
The center’s lawsuit seeks to ensure inmates’ attorneys are present at juvenile parole hearings and give inmates the right to see any evidence.
The Missouri Department of Corrections does not comment on lawsuits. In court documents, the state argued it doesn’t need to change its parole process because it already gives inmates a meaningful chance at release.
The U.S. Supreme Court did not “entitle the plaintiffs to special parole considerations above and beyond that received by other parole-eligible offenders,” lawyers with the state attorney general’s office wrote. “Under Missouri’s normal parole procedures almost 95 percent of offenders receive early release from prison before the end of their sentence. Plaintiffs have not pleaded to any facts that suggest that they will not receive the same meaningful opportunity for release that all Missouri offenders receive.”
Bradley Houston is one of the three juvenile lifers to know when he’s going home.
Houston, now 49, says he was a “mixed-up kid” who “wasn’t a very happy person” back in 1985 when he shot and killed a man who was working on his family’s property in Lincoln County.
“We didn’t even speak or anything,” Houston said. “He was just out doing his job, and I kind of was there. I was in a wrong place in my head, and he paid the price.”
Houston pleaded guilty to first-degree murder at 17, and was given a mandatory life without parole sentence. He said it took him more than a decade to stop doing “stupid crap” and join an intensive drug-treatment program.
“I’m not mad at everybody anymore,” Houston said. “I got into meditation and kind of found some peace within me. And once you find peace within yourself, the rest of it kind of falls into place.”
As a law clerk at the state prison in Bonne Terre, Houston was tuned in about what the courts and Missouri lawmakers were doing, so he knew almost immediately he’d have a chance to go free. He applied for parole as soon as he could, and found out in January that he’ll be released in May 2020.
“I didn’t get overly excited or anything like that,” he said. “I’m still waiting for the other shoe to fall, and them saying, we’re just going to send you back inside and take that date.”
Houston knows most of the other juvenile lifers, and has no idea why so many have been denied.
“I can’t imagine me saying anything that would, you know, be any different than anybody else out of the 23,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said since 2005 that juveniles should be sentenced differently, ruling then that it was unconstitutional to give the death penalty to defendants under the age of 18 because biology and relative immaturity made them less responsible for their crimes. Its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama extended that logic to mandatory life without parole sentences.
The 2012 ruling, however, allowed mandatory life sentences to be handed out to the “rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” And while a follow-up ruling in 2016 gave any juvenile defendant already serving a mandatory life sentence a “meaningful opportunity to obtain relief,” the high court never promised juvenile lifers they would get out of prison.
The 2016 ruling also made it clear that states could use parole hearings as a way to give inmates the right to ask for their freedom.
The problem in Missouri, critics say, is that the hearings don’t provide the opportunity to demonstrate they have changed.
“If the only reason that the punishment is constitutional is because there is a parole process, it needs to be robust,” according to John Miller, an attorney with the Phillips Black Project — a law firm that is raising money through crowdfunding to help pay attorneys to handle the parole cases.
Missouri’s parole process makes it hard for the juvenile lifers to maintain hope, Breihan said, and families ride the same emotional roller coaster.
“Your family gets used to you being here in prison. That’s their understanding. When you insert hope in the middle of this process, it’s the most horrible crash you can experience,” Collier said.
The denial affected his 26-year-old daughter the most, he said. They have a close relationship, and he said he can still hear the shrill scream that came over the phone when she learned he wasn’t coming home.
Shatiega Brown was similarly crushed this year when her older brother, Norman Brown, was told he’d remain behind bars.
In 1993, 15-year-old Norman served as a decoy while a man twice his age robbed a jewelry store in Chesterfield, fatally shooting the owner in the process. Norman, now 41, got a life sentence for first-degree murder even though he wasn’t the shooter.
Shatiega Brown rejoiced when Norman told her the law had changed and he could ask for his freedom.
“It was a step in the right direction,” she said. “I’m like, okay, we’re getting somewhere, finally.”
He’d done thousands of hours of community service, helped care for a dying prisoner and ran the Puppies for Parole program at the Licking prison for a time. But Norman Brown was denied parole in April, and can’t ask for another hearing until 2022.
“I almost lost hope because I feel like, in four more years, what going to change that hasn’t changed in 28 years?” Shatiega Brown said, adding that she believes her brother was moved to a prison 4.5 hours away from St. Louis as punishment for joining the MacArthur Center lawsuit.
Wilson said his family is also struggling with the fact that he isn’t yet free.
“In turn, it made it kind of hard on me,” he said. “You know, it’s a struggle to keep them positive.”
But Wilson has no plans to give up. He’ll keep going to classes and caring for the older inmates, because, as he said: “I understand that I may never get out of here, but that doesn’t mean I’m not supposed to continue toward positive behavior.”
And in five years, he said he’ll try again to go home.
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