10 Macomb County murderers serving life-without-parole prison terms will get a chance for possible release due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
County Prosecutor Eric Smith said there are 10 defendants who are eligible to be re-sentenced because of the high court’s 6-3 decision in January that expanded a prior juvenile lifer law ruling.
The most well-known case involves defendant Agustin Pena, now 43, who was 15 when he and Jaime Rodriquez, now finally dead, killed Stephanie Dubay, 15, in 1990 in a Warren basement during a devil-worship ritual. They were convicted of first-degree murder.
Two of the other cases occurred in the 1970s and three have happened since 2000.
The defendant’s names and case numbers have been submitted to Chief Judge James Biernat, as required by state law. Smith has six months from Jan. 25 to decide whether to ask a judge to continue the life-without-parole sentence. In cases where life is not sought, the judge will sentence the defendant to between 25 and 40 years at the minimum to a maximum of 60 years, according to state law.
Statewide, the ruling affects nearly 350 cases.
Smith said he has not decided which cases he will seek to keep the offender in prison for the rest of his life.
‘We’re in the process of acquiring the files, police reports and talking to families of victims,’ Smith said Monday. ‘We will give each case a fair look as far as the guidelines given to us by the Supreme Court. There’s a lot of violent, horrific cases that we will be reviewing.’
Smith stated the process will revive ugly memories for victims’ families.
‘Their poor families who have suffered so much now have to be contacted again and will come to court and have wounds reopened,’ he said.
Valerie Newman of the State Appellate Defenders Office, which will handle a number of the cases, is pleased with the ruling because scientific data shows juveniles aren’t always mature enough to comprehend the consequences of their actions and therefore should not be treated like adults.
She emphasized there will not be a rash of prisoner releases.
‘This is not the flood gates opening up and a flood of prisoners being released into the streets,’ she said. ‘There’s a process here. No one will be released immediately without going through the process.’
The Jan. 25 ruling made retroactive a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that said automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles is unconstitutional, ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’
Smith and Newman agreed the situation is complicated by a pending court decision that could result in the defendants’ sentence being determined by a jury, not a judge. Authorities may wish to await the outcome of that issue before scheduling resentencing hearings.
‘Everything’s up in the air right now,’ Smith said. ‘We just know that we will have to have a hearing on all of these cases.’
Newman believes prosecutors should only seek to maintain life-without-parole sentences except in the ‘rare exception,’ based on the Supreme Court decision. She added those convicted of cases in which murder was not the intent should receive the most consideration. That could include those convicted of felony murder and/or as an accomplice.
But Smith retorted, ‘It may not be as rare as SADO may argue.’
Smith said he will consider many factors, including a defendant’s behavior while behind bars and the wishes of victims’ family members.
Victim rights staffers from Smith’s office are in the process of contacting family of victims and the prosecutor plans to personally meet with the family of each victim, as long as the family wishes to meet.
Even if Smith does not seek to maintain the life-without-parole term, the judge or jury will have to determine the term within the range, which was set by state law. If a defendant has already served more than the minimum between 25 and 40 years set by the judge or jury, his or her case will immediately go to the state Parole Board.
Newman said there is no defendant in Michigan who has served beyond the maximum 60-year term.
The original 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama resulted in the re-sentencing of two Macomb County defendants because their convictions had not been finalized by appeals courts at the time. In January 2015 Ihab Maslamani, 24, and Robert Taylor, 23, were sentenced a second time by Judge Diane Druzinski to life in prison without parole for the 2009 execution-style murder of 21-year-old Matthew Landry of Chesterfield Township in Detroit following his abduction in Eastpointe. The sentences duplicate what the pair received from Druzinski in 2010 and ’11 following their convictions by juries.