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About half of Michigan’s “juvenile lifers” now free from prison

Five men smile, standing in a large conference room. One Black man in a black suit holds a microphone, speaking tot he audience gathered.

Zack Whaley

Safe & Just Michigan
"It's good to be free. Nothing, nothing like being free." Duane Elam told a crowd of advocates at the state capitol on October 3, 2023. Elam joined (pictured left to right) Ronnie Waters, Gregory Wines, Lorenzo Harrell, and Jamil Allen-Bey to share their experiences as teens sentenced to life in prison with state lawmakers.
Updated: December 20, 2023 at 3:56 PM EST
Reporter Lindsey Smith joined All things Considered host Rebecca Kruth to discuss this data on December 20, 2023. You can hear that discussion in the audio player above.

Michigan had more so-called “juvenile lifers” than almost any other state in 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles violated the Constitution.

Michigan adopted particularly harsh criminal policies in the late 1980s and early 1990s for minors arrested on murder charges as part of a wave of “tough on crime” policies. The changes punished accomplices, getaway drivers and others who were indirect participants in a homicide. Black teens made up a disproportionate number of the state’s juvenile lifers.

Despite a slow start and initial resistance by the state’s top attorney at the time, the vast majority of those people have now been resentenced. A new analysis from Michigan Radio shows nearly half of them are no longer in prison.

At least a dozen of Michigan’s juvenile lifers died in prison, most of them never getting a chance at a resentencing.

Several died young. Earlier this year, 39-year-old Angela McConnell died by suicide at a women’s prison in Washtenaw County. She was sentenced to life without parole for her involvement in the murders of three people in Kalamazoo when she was 17. The University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic had opened an investigation into her claims of innocence.

A Wayne County judge resentenced 60-year-old William Garrison in January 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the state’s prisons. Garrison died in prison after contracting the virus, just weeks before he was supposed to get out on parole.

Most judges resentencing Michigan’s juvenile lifers handed down a lighter sentence, a term of years less than life. Only a couple dozen people were again sentenced to life without parole, and most of those cases are still in the appeals process.

The Michigan Supreme Court sent Richard Musselman’s case back to the trial court last month. He was 15 years old in 1980 when he and some older friends went on a “shooting rampage” targeting Black motorists in Saginaw County, killing two people and wounding a third. Another juvenile lifer from Saginaw, James Porter, was resentenced to life. He was convicted of killing a family of five in 1982.

Michael Kvam waived his right to a resentencing hearing. “Dying here is what I deserve,” The Detroit News reported Kvam told a judge in 2019. He was convicted of murdering three people, including a 15- and nine-year-old in 1984.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard pointed to Kvam’s and other brutal cases as reasons to support keeping juvenile lifers locked up. At a 2016 press conference he compared them to the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter, and warned of an “unparalleled deadly crime spree” if they were freed.

However, the data show the vast majority of those released from prison have not reoffended.

Timothy Riddle was released in 2017 after 28 years in prison for murdering a woman in Wayne County when he was 15. He’s back in prison now, serving a lengthy sentence for a string of break-ins and resisting arrest after a police chase and barricading himself in a gas station for hours in a small town in west Michigan. “This is a very rare case,” a Department of Corrections spokesman said at the time.

Most U.S. states have banned life without parole sentences for juvenile defendants. In Michigan, a bill introduced in March to ban life without parole sentences for people under 19 failed to come up for a vote in this year’s session.

Only a handful of minors have been sentenced to life without parole in recent years. Unlike the wave of defendants in the late 1980s and through the 90s, these juvenile defendants get what’s known as a Miller hearing. There, the judge considers a defendant's age, home environment and the potential for rehabilitation, among other factors.

Last summer, Oxford school shooter Ethan Crumbley’s Miller hearing stretched over three days. Oakland County Judge Kwamé Rowe considered outside influences over the crime and Crumbley’s potential for rehabilitation. “The decision to conduct the school shooting was not an impulsive or impetuous decision,” he said, and determined that Crumbley could spend the rest of his life in prison. Crumbley’s sentencing hearing will begin Friday.

A note on our data: There is no centralized state database to track “juvenile lifers” in Michigan. For this story, Michigan Radio included people sentenced to life for crimes they committed under the age of 18. We included defendants whose appeals were still active when Miller was decided in 2012 and those who had exhausted their appeals when the Montgomery decision came down in 2016, requiring the Miller factors to apply retroactively. We also included juvenile lifers who died before Miller, because they were juveniles who did end up living the rest of their lives in prison, even if they didn’t get a chance at resentencing. The data come from civil rights attorney Deborah LaBelle, and were fact-checked against court filings, Michigan Department of Corrections records through December 1, and with the State Appellate Defender Office.

Adam Yaha Reyes and Beenish Ahmed contributed to this story.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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