Darrell Dorsey was 14 when he received a 76-year prison sentence for killing one person and trying to kill two others.
Now 40 and a resident of the Lawrenceville Correctional Center, he wants his freedom.
Whether than happens depends on the Illinois Supreme Court, which is wrestling with a legal conundrum raised by new sentencing rules for juvenile murderers.
Here’s the dilemma the high court confronted during March 9 oral arguments.
Dorsey would be 90 if he served all 76 years. That, obviously, would violate the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ban on life sentences or “de facto” life sentences for juvenile murderers.
But the 76-year sentence is deceiving.
Dorsey was sentenced under old rules that provided day-for-day credit for well-behaved inmates. Consequently, the corrections department identifies his release date as June 16, 2034. By then, he would be 53 and have spent 38 years behind bars.
The high court must decide if Dorsey’s day-for-day credit for good behavior is relevant in determining whether his sentence meets constitutional guidelines.
Defense lawyer Bryon Reina argued Dorsey’s scheduled early release should be irrelevant because good-time credits are “too uncertain” and beyond the court’s ability to control.
Prosecutor Gopi Kashyap countered that “the system is designed to release” Dorsey in 2034 and that all an offender like Dorsey is legally entitled to is a “meaningful opportunity” to win an early release.
“A person’s behavior in prison is indicative of their readiness for release,” she argued.
Courts nationwide are wrestling
with sentencing questions involving juvenile murderers that were raised by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller vs. Alabama.
That’s when the high court, for the most part, banned life or de facto life sentencing for juveniles because they violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.”
The decision raised the obvious question — if life sentences or de facto life sentences are excessive, what sentences are permitted?
In 2019, the Illinois Supreme Court — in People vs. Buffer — established a 40-year ceiling.
Life sentences are still permitted, but only if a court decides, based on an offender’s background, that he is too dangerous to release.
The appellate court decision affirmed Dorsey’s sentence before the Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling. Following the Buffer decision, state appeals courts have ruled that Dorsey-like sentences run afoul of Buffer, declaring day-for-day good-time credits irrelevant.
Now the Illinois Supreme Court will settle that question. If Dorsey wins, he’ll get a new sentencing hearing that almost certainly will cut his time and could prompt his release.
The courts’ decisions on juvenile offenders are based on the theory that these young killers are immature and impulsive, making them prone to engage in violent behavior at the behest of older acquaintances.
In Dorsey’s case, he carried out a gang murder, barging into a restaurant and opening fire. The trial judge characterized Dorsey’s indifference to human life as “indiscriminate ruthlessness.”
“Because of the nature of this attack that he launched on that restaurant, it would be very possible that (Dorsey) would be sitting here charged with four murders. And facing a life sentence,” the judge said.
Of course, that’s just what Dorsey’s lawyer argues he is now serving, even though he’ll be 53 when his scheduled release date arrives.
The trial judge sentenced Dorsey for three crimes — one murder and two attempted murders. Dorsey got 40 years for murder and 18 years each for the two attempted murders.
The judge ordered the three sentences be served consecutively, as the law required. A ruling in the case is expected sometime this summer.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at email@example.com or 217-393-8251.