Wrongful Convictions and Extreme Sentencing of Juveniles

Yesterday was a big day for those in the juvenile justice world – a world I count myself a member. In People v. Davis, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously held that the 80 or so Illinois prisoners that are serving mandatorily imposed life without parole sentences for crimes they committed when they were under 18 will get new sentencing hearings. The case arose after the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2012, held in Miller v. Alabama that such sentences were unconstitutional. After that decision, the technical legal question became whether the Miller ruling would apply only to future cases (i.e., telling courts don’t do this again), or to only those who were already serving the sentence. Today, the Illinois Supreme Court said it applies to both.

Let’s stop there. You may be asking: Why is this being posted on a wrongful convictions blog? At least where I sit, there are lots of reasons, but let me hit on one. (Perhaps more blog posts to come on others…)

It should be no secret to anyone reading this how extraordinarily difficult it is for innocence lawyers to actually overturn a conviction. It is an uphill climb, and a very, very steep one at that. Finding any old documents, physical evidence, or witnesses is hard enough. Finding these things or people that include powerful exculpatory evidence for your client is that much harder. Finding those witnesses who are courageous enough to come forward and give sworn affidavits detailing the exculpatory evidence can be even more difficult. And convincing prosecutors, courts, and others that your evidence demonstrates innocence may be the hardest part of all. There is a very real presumption against do-overs in the criminal justice system. You need extraordinarily powerful evidence to convince people that the jury, the trial and appellate judges, the prosecutors, and everyone else got it wrong for X many years.

With that backdrop, I can’t begin to tell you many of my cases have been stymied somewhere along that process. You read about the successes, but what you don’t hear about are the individuals that my colleagues and I firmly believe are innocent, but can’t find or garner adequate evidence to either convince a court, or, in some cases, to even raise a claim. And I can tell you that there are individuals amongst the 80 or so Illinois inmates that Davis affects that fall into that category.

Yesterday’s decision means hope for the likely innocent people who may never be “proven” innocent. Yesterday’s decision allows them to reopen their cases even without evidence of innocence. Judges will now be forced to take a close and true look at who these people are. And these people are poets, religious leaders, and scholars. They are kind, warm, funny, and inspirational. They are fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, and friends who are loved dearly. Because of today’s ruling, as attorneys, we now get to go to court to demonstrate these individual’s humanity. If not a shot to get a court to acknowledge an injustice, it is a shot to prove why our beloved clients don’t deserve to spend the entirety of their lives behind prison walls. 

One last thing: I would be remiss if I did not say that those who are not factually innocent fit the description above and more. I find it so heartening that at least my innocent clients seem to unanimously support outlawing these types of mandatory, extreme sentences on juveniles. I think it is, at least in part, because my clients lived with these people in prison, and they could watch and see how people change, grow, mature, learn, and better themselves. I can only imagine how powerful it must be watching this firsthand – really seeing how each person is, was, and becomes so much more than there very worst act, and that an individual should not be discarded and forgotten about as a human being based on a single act committed as young man or woman. 

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