Kids who commit adult crimes are causing considerable extra work in courts across Illinois and the country, a consequence of U.S. Supreme Court opinions that require youthful offenders to be treated less harshly than adult offenders.
One of the latest cases to come down the legal assembly line is that of Elliott T. Murphy, 26, of Decatur, an inmate at the maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center.
Now 26, Murphy was 16 when he and a group of friends stomped one man to death and viciously beat another in August 2009 near Garfield Park in Decatur.
Sentenced to 55 years in prison — 40 for murder, 15 for attempted murder — Murphy last week won a new sentencing hearing from the Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield.
The appeals court said Murphy’s 55-year sentence is unconstitutional because it represents a de facto life sentence that is prohibited by a series of U.S. and Illinois Supreme Court decisions.
Judging from the Illinois Supreme Court’s April decision in People vs. Buffer, it seems likely that when Murphy is resentenced, he will receive a maximum sentence of 40 years for the key role he played in the assaults upon the two Decatur men.
That’s because the Illinois court ruled that any sentence longer than 40 years for a youthful offender — in this case, Dimitri Buffer — is constitutionally excessive.
Buffer was 15 when he participated in a double murder in Chicago. He and other members of a gang shot and killed two members of another gang in a drug dispute.
The court’s goal in setting a new standard in sentencing juveniles for extremely serious crimes is that they must have an opportunity for a “meaningful life” after release, not just an infirm existence.
Appeals from individuals like Murphy are possible because of a string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions between 2005 and 2012 that first eliminated the death penalty for juvenile offenders and then eliminated life sentences for that same age group.
While acknowledging that a life sentence might be appropriate for a juvenile who is especially vicious and incorrigible, the high court said such instances would be extremely rare.
But what is, in fact, a life sentence? An actual “life sentence” or a sentence in years that, in reality, consumes all or virtually all of a defendant’s life?
The question of years is what the courts are addressing now — not just in terms of the length of a sentence but also in years of age for the offender.
Initially restricted to juveniles — those under 18 — the courts are addressing new legal claims that young adults over 18 should be treated as leniently as juveniles.
The court’s position is driven by claims that young offenders are not yet hardened criminals, like some adults, and that they’re inherently immature and impulsive and have rehabilitative potential.
Murphy, a muscular 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, now has a release date of June 2062, when he would be 69. If his sentence is cut to 40 years, he would be 54 when released.
Obviously, the difference between 69 and 54 is substantial, the difference between middle and old age.
The crime for which he and his associates were convicted was mindlessly violent and without discernible motive. In fact, it was murder for the fun of it.
Jerry Newingham, 61, was “riding his bike when he was attacked,” according to court records.
“After he fell to the ground, Newingham was stomped to death by members of the group. The assailants then attacked Wilson, who was lying near the (park) pavilion. Emergency personnel found Wilson bloody, swollen and unable to walk or answer questions,” Justice James Knecht wrote in the appellate court’s decision affirming Murphy’s conviction but setting aside his 55-year sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions striking down death and then life as appropriate sentences for juvenile offenders are retroactive, meaning those affected by them across the country can petition the courts for new sentencing hearings.
Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com.