Jim Dey | Sentences of young, violent offenders getting second looks

Jim Dey | Sentences of young, violent offenders getting second looks

When a court rules, it's often not the end of a legal dispute but the beginning of a whole series of new legal disputes.

Consider U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Roper vs. Miller (2005), Ghaham vs. Florida (2010) and Miller vs. Alabama (2012).

In Roper, the high court ruled that imposing the death penalty on juvenile murderers was unconstitutional. In Graham, it held that a sentence of life without parole for juveniles who did not commit homicide violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Finally, in Miller, it found that the Eighth Amendment "prohibits a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without parole."

Lo these many years later, lower courts are still trying to figure out what those prohibitions mean in the real-life world of violent juvenile crime. Further, how old can a juvenile be to get the special treatment accorded to young adults?

In January, the Illinois Supreme Court heard the case of a 25-year-old Dimitri Buffer, who was 15 in 2009 when he shot and killed a Chicago woman he misidentified as a gang member.

He was sentenced to 50 years in prison by a Cook County judge. In Buffer's case before the state supreme court, his lawyers argued that 50 years is a de facto life sentence and that it must be lowered to a level assuring Buffer a meaningful life upon release.

In an April ruling, the high court agreed that Buffer's sentence was too long, finding that any sentence longer than 40 years is constitutionally excessive for a defendant like Buffer.

Buffer, of course, was clearly a juvenile — defined by law as under 18 years of age — when he killed his victim.

Now, a state appeals court has extended the Buffer ruling to a non-juvenile, ordering a new sentencing hearing for Menard Correctional Center inmate Antonio House.

In 1993, House was 19 and a gang member caught up in a struggle between rival groups over turf used for drug sales.

He was among a group of Unknown Vice Lords who kidnapped and killed two rival gang members.

House, now 44, reportedly participated in the kidnapping and acted as a lookout while the two victims were shot and killed.

Justice Margaret McBride, writing for the unanimous three-judge appellate panel, said their decision to order a re-sentencing for House "follows recent trends discussed in our analysis that an individual under 21 years of age should receive consideration for their age and maturity level when receiving harsh sentences."

The ruling comes on the heels of state legislation declaring defendants who were under 21 when they committed first-degree murder to be eligible for parole review after serving 20 years for their sentences.

That provision excludes defendants serving a life sentence.

The courts have come up with a wide range of explanations for why juvenile offenders who engaged in extremely violent crimes should not be held to the same standards as adult violent offenders.

Teens lack maturity, are more vulnerable to outside pressures, are prone to impulsive decisions and are less able to extract themselves from "horrific, crime-producing settings."

On the other hand, because their characters are not fully formed, they have greater ability to change their mind-set and character.

In House's case, the court said he didn't plan the crime, merely "took orders from higher ranking UVL members," and acted as a lookout, not as one of the killers.

The court noted that House received the same natural life sentence as one of the shooters, while another co-defendant "with a similar culpability" as House "has been released from the penitentiary following re-sentencing."

When House goes back to court, he's likely to be sentenced to what amounts to time served.

That means he'll be released.

The same thing is happening in other criminal cases in Illinois and elsewhere as the reverberations from the three U.S. Supreme Court decisions from 13, nine and seven years ago continue to be felt.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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