An opinion issued by the Arkansas Supreme Court Thursday could have major implications for more than 50 state inmates who were sentenced to mandatory life sentences as juveniles.
The state's high court says Ulonzo Gordon, who was sentenced to life without parole for a capital murder offense which he committed when he was 17, can receive a resentencing hearing in Crittenden County. The opinion was written by associate justice Robin Wynne and follows a state appeal of a writ of habeas corpus issued by the Lee County Circuit Court.
The opinion drew from a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandatory juvenile life sentences without parole were unconstitutional. Attorney Jeff Rosensweig represented Gordon and says the opinion sets a precedent for other inmates pursuing writs of habeas corpus, as the ruling applies retroactively to their cases.
“You have people who by definition made bad mistakes or judgments when they were teenagers. And there's been a lot more understanding of the teenage mind since most of these people went to prison,” Rosenzweig says.
Arkansas no longer has a mandatory life sentence statute for juveniles, but courts still have the option of issuing a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The U.S. Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama and a companion case Jackson v. Hobbs ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and were cruel and unusual punishment.
Rosenzweig says he or other private attorneys will likely litigate many of the impending habeas corpus cases that are covered by the ruling in order to determine if there has been wrongful or unfair incarceration. He says those cases are civil proceedings. He says a majority will be taken up in the circuit court of Jefferson and Lincoln counties, where a many of the affected people are incarcerated.
“The next step will be to have the final hearings on all the persons who were covered by the ruling and demonstrate their ages to the circuit judges who had their cases.,” he says. “And then at that point when the ages are demonstrated, they'll be sent back to the various circuit courts around the state for resentencing hearings.”
Rosenzweig says at that point, the resentencing hearings will likely be litigated by public defenders. Those cases would be taken up in the original jurisdiction where the crime was committed.
Gregg Parrish, Executive Director of the Arkansas Public Defenders Commission says if an inmate seeking a resentencing hearing is determined indigent, or lacking in any assets sufficient to hire private counsel, then his team will take up the case. He says ever since the U.S. Supreme Court decision, his office has been preparing for and following potentially applicable cases around the state, which he estimates to number about 55. He says the process of litigating the hearings will likely involve all the same resources of a trial for a capital offense.
“We will start all over. We will have to address all the factors that are required for sentencing which includes litigation and that means acquiring records, family interviews, from birth til the present time,” Parrish says.
Parrish says during former Governor Mike Beebe's administration, the Public Defenders Commission sought and received about 2.5 million dollars in extra appropriations to set aside for these cases. He says this is on top of an annual budget of about 24 million dollars a year. Parrish says the commission will ask the legislature for more funds to deal with these cases.
It is uncertain whether the state will attempt any more litigation to challenge the opinion on the Gordon case. An emailed inquiry to the Arkansas Attorney General's offices prompted this response from spokesman Judd Deere:
“Only those inmates who were juveniles when they were sentenced to serve a ‘mandatory’ life sentence are affected by today’s decision in Kelley v. Ulonzo Gordon. The Attorney General’s Office continues to review this decision from the State Supreme Court.”