U.S. Supreme Court opinions are the judicial equivalent of thunderbolts hurled down from Mt. Olympus — fiery missives that can land just about anywhere with significant consequences.
Ten days ago, one hit a Champaign County courtroom, where 38-year-old Falanzo Hixson got a new lease on life.
What happened? Hixson was sentenced to 35 years in prison for a murder he committed in 1999.
That’s a long time. But Hixson exited the courtroom feeling nothing but relief.
“I have a full life ahead of me, and I’m going to start out fresh,” he said.
If that seems like an odd reaction, consider the circumstances.
Hixson initially was sentenced to 55 years in prison. Just 17 years old when he committed his crime, Hixson was not scheduled to be released from prison until he was 72.
But starting in 2005 and continuing on in a series of rulings, the nation’s highest court revised the constitutional standards for imposing extremely lengthy sentences on defendants who were juveniles or very young adults at the time they committed their crimes.
Concluding that young people are different from adults for a variety of reasons, the court imposed limits on the adult-type penalties that could be imposed on them. First, it struck down the death penalty. Then it struck down mandatory life or de facto life sentences unless the sentencing judge makes specific findings that the young offenders were “permanently incorrigible.”
In 2016, Hixson filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new sentencing hearing because “his 55-year sentence is a de facto life sentence that violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
Hixson’s cause was boosted by subsequent state court rulings in 2019 that appeared to establish a 40-year ceiling on sentences imposed on those under 21.
Hixson’s petition for resentencing was first rejected by Circuit Judge Jeffrey Ford, who found that the sentencing judge (the since-retired J.G. Townsend) considered Hixson’s rehabilitative potential by imposing a sentence less than the 60-year maximum.
The appellate court, however, reversed Ford. Justice James Knecht wrote that “this is an issue of law with no factual matters to resolve” and concluded that resentencing is required because Hixson’s sentence “exceeds the 40-year threshold.”
On Jan. 3, Ford imposed a 35-year sentence with credit for more than 7,000 days served. That means Hixson has about 15 years left.
But he’s hoping to be out before then. The Illinois Legislature recently passed a bill that allows young offenders like Hixson to apply for parole after serving 20 years behind bars.
“I’m not even looking forward to the 15 years. I’m looking forward to the parole board, he said.
Hixson insists he’s learned a lot from his experience behind bars and that he’s a new, wiser person. He said he’s earned his GED, taken college classes from DePaul University and Benedictine College, participated in Bible study and received a variety of certificates for completing substance-abuse and mental-health programs.
“I’ve been clean 20 years,” he said.
Hixson’s crime, which occurred on Hickory Street in Champaign, was cruel and pointless. He was selling $40 worth of crack cocaine to a local man, Jerry Brinegar, when Brinegar had second thoughts about the purchase.
Hixson said he grabbed for his victim’s money, pulled a gun and shot him as they struggled over the cash. He expressed remorse for Brinegar’s death but denied any intent to kill.
The trial record, however, indicated he fired “two or three” shots.
“Anytime you have a gun, it can possibly kill someone,” he said. “That’s something I have tried to understand.”
Hixson got a lesson on that: His sister was murdered by a young gunman while he was imprisoned.
At the time of his crime, however, Hixson said “all I wanted to do was sell my drugs and go get some alcohol and marijuana.”
He insists he wasn’t a dangerous person, describing himself as a “young knucklehead.” Despite Hixson’s more favorable personal assessment, Townsend concluded that he was “a murderer and a drug dealer” and that “the public must be protected from” him.
At the same time, Townsend also noted the negative circumstances of Hixson’s life.
“It is a societal tragedy that I’m looking at an 18-year-old defendant who by my calculation appears to have been out of custody for 81 / 2 months since he was 13,” Townsend observed.
Hixson was scheduled to be returned to the maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center on Thursday. He said life behind bars is tolerable “for the most part.”
Hixson also said he plans to continue his self-improvement efforts, enrolling in barber school and taking advantage of any other opportunities that become available.
“I’m going to continue to rehabilitate myself,” he said.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-351-5369.