Dimitri Buffer completed his 11-year rendezvous with destiny last week when he was given a 25-year prison sentence.
In receiving a far less harsh sentence than he had received previously, Buffer completed a legal odyssey that reached its high-water mark last year. That’s when the Illinois Supreme Court effectively ruled in Buffer’s case that, absent extraordinary circumstances, juvenile murderers cannot be sentenced to a prison term longer than 40 years.
Anything more, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled, would be a de facto life sentence that would violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual” punishment.
In ruling as it did, the state high court was accommodating a string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that barred on constitutional grounds life sentences or sentences in years that amount to life sentences.
The theory behind the U.S. Supreme Court rulings is that juvenile offenders are different than adult offenders in terms of their maturity and judgment. Because of that, they cannot be held to the same legal strictures as adult offenders.
Now 27, Buffer stands to be released from prison when he is in his early 40s instead of his 60s.
The Buffer case is just one of hundreds of cases — in Illinois and across the country — involving juvenile murderers serving extremely long sentences.
As a consequence of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on juvenile sentencings, requests for new and lower sentences for former youthful offenders are pending in state courts across the country.
In January, a convicted juvenile murderer — Falanzo Hixson — was re-sentenced in Champaign County Court to 35 years in prison for the drug-related killing of a local man, Jerry Brinegar, in 1999.
Hixson, who was 17 when he shot and killed Brinegar, was originally sentenced to 55 years in prison and not scheduled to be released until he reached age 72.
Cases of juvenile murderers frequently involve individuals who are caught up in gang violence and/or selling and consuming illegal drugs. They frequently have had prior extensive contact with the criminal justice system.
As now-retired Circuit Judge J.G. Townsend noted at Hixson’s sentencing hearing, Hixson has been held in one form of custody or another for all but 81/2 months since he was 13.
In Buffer’s case, he tried to kill a gang rival in 2010, but the bullets he fired struck and killed a bystander, 25-year-old Jessica Bazan.
The courts, obviously, have separate systems for juvenile and adult offenders. However, juveniles who commit adult crimes like murder often are tried as adults.
In choosing to set a maximum 40-year term for re-sentencing of convicted juvenile offender, the Illinois Supreme Court relied on a new state law passed after the U.S. Supreme Court rulings regarding juvenile murders that characterized a life sentence as more than 40 years.
Consequently, if juveniles are to be sentenced to less than a de facto life sentence, “we choose to draw a line at 40 years,” wrote state Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville.
“This number finds its origin in the entity best suited to make such a determination, the legislature,” he wrote.
However, Justice Anne Burke, while agreeing that Buffer needed to be re-sentenced, disagreed with the 40-year number.
She proposed a much more complicated formula based on life expectancies of juvenile offenders that “may be as little as 50.6 years.”
“I would err on the side of caution and find that an incarcerated minor who is sentenced to a lengthy prison term has a life expectancy of 55 years. Thus, any sentence imposed on a minor that would result in the minor’s earliest release from prison when he is 55 years old or more would be a de facto life sentence,” she argued.
Former juvenile offenders, when re-sentenced, often present themselves as much wiser and more mature than in their youth.
Both Buffer and Hixson presented their sentencing judges with a list of prison accomplishments that include participation in therapy as well as training programs.
Whether they are or not is open to debate. The nation’s highest court has ruled they’re entitled to be released when they still have a chance to lead a meaningful, productive life, and that’s what they’re getting case by case across the country.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at 217-351-5369 or firstname.lastname@example.org.