JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday affirmed that more than 80 Missouri inmates sentenced to life in prison as teenagers have a chance at freedom.
The high court extended its 2012 ruling banning mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers, saying it applies to those previously convicted. That could mean a resentencing or a chance at parole for the 81 Missouri inmates the Department of Corrections says were sentenced as minors to spend their lives in prison for first-degree murder.
Missouri courts had already granted resentencing hearings for some inmates with appeals pending at the time of the 2012 ruling, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. But the state Supreme Court had not yet ruled on a prior case that had exhausted the appeals process.
"I'm glad that we have judges that really understand how important it is to give juveniles a second chance," said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat. "We all know that their brains are very different from adult brains and that they make poor decisions without rationally thinking about the consequences."
The state attorney general's office is reviewing the ruling, spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said.
The Supreme Court's decision came as state lawmakers are again pushing to change Missouri law on juvenile sentencing to come into compliance with the 2012 ruling.
The state currently has two sentencing options for first-degree murder: life in prison without parole or the death penalty. Because of another Supreme Court ruling from 2005 that said death sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, life without parole has been the only sentencing option for Missourians younger than 18 who are convicted of murder.
Monday's decision does not expressly foreclose judges from sentencing teenagers to a lifetime in prison. But the Supreme Court has previously said such sentences should be rare, and only for the most heinous crimes.
Under legislation filed in the state House and Senate, a lifetime in prison would no longer be automatic but it could remain a possibility.
The House bill would also give the option to sentence those 16 or older at the time of the crime to at least 40 years in prison. Those under 16 would face at least 30 years behind bars or life without parole.
Those 16 or 17 years old at the time of the crime would face at least 50 years in prison or life without parole under a version by Republican Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield. Those under 16 would be locked up for at least 35 years.
A similar bill by Dixon last year failed on the final day of session. He said he's been trying for four years to change state law to provide alternative sentencing options.
"It's very important that we get it done this year," Dixon said. "We don't have a viable, constitutional sentence option going forward."
Convicted KC arsonist may get shot at freedom with SCOTUS ruling
Bryan Sheppard has been a prisoner for nearly 20 years. He’s one of five people convicted of setting the 1988 fire that sparked an explosion at a construction site in Kansas City, killing six firefighters that were responding to the flames.
Because Sheppard was 17 at the time of the explosion, he is likely to receive a resentencing hearing in front of a federal judge because of the Supreme Court ruling.
“Setting aside questions of innocence, I think it's huge in and of itself that the Supreme Court has said, ‘If you’re a kid, you shouldn't be sitting in jail the rest of your life and you have the opportunity to change and the opportunity to be reformed,'” said Sheppard’s friend, Andrew Johnson.
According to Sheppard’s attorney, Cindy Short, her client is just that, reformed.
In a statement, Short says in part: “The Supreme Court ruling provides that Mr. Sheppard who has served nearly 20 years in prison is entitled to re-sentencing. Bryan Sheppard has been a model prisoner. He has participated in numerous programs in prison and he has maintained close relationships with his daughter and grandchildren.”
The SCOTUS decision does not mean Sheppard will automatically go free. The judge could deny parole and uphold a life sentence, could designate more years to his term before being eligible for parole, or could grant him his freedom.
Sheppard’s daughter, Ashley Keeney, isn’t holding her breath.
“After all these years of hoping and trying this, what I've learned from everything is not get your hopes up to much. There is that chance that nothing will change and all our hard work will have been for nothing.”
If Sheppard is released, Keeney says it would mean her two kids would have their grandfather in their lives.
The sister of slain firefighter Michael Oldham says the families of the fallen firefighters do not believe Sheppard will see life outside of a jail cell.
Jan Offill was in the courtroom throughout the trial and believes the case against Sheppard is too strong.