PHOENIX — Thirty-four men serving life sentences without release in Arizona for killings committed when they were juveniles are getting a chance to argue that they should one day be released.
The opportunity for new sentences stems from a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder. Last year, the court said the ruling applied to the more than 2,000 inmates already serving such sentences nationwide, and that all but the rare irredeemable juvenile offender should have a chance at parole.
In Arizona, prisoners serving life without release — also known as natural life sentences — aren’t guaranteed lesser punishments. They must ask a court to review their cases, and may receive a parole-eligible sentence if they can show their crimes reflected “the transient immaturity of youth.” But a natural life sentence can be upheld if a judge determines an offender remains irreparably corrupt.
Without a law from the Arizona Legislature on how to handle these cases, lawyers predict that lower-court judges who hold resentencing hearings will have to create procedures to determine whether a prisoner gets a lower sentence.
Prosecutors in Arizona’s two largest counties, which account for 85 percent of the cases, said they won’t automatically recommend the same lesser sentences for all.
Re-examining the cases is expected to take years. Attorneys liken the process to the deep research and analysis needed when preparing for death penalty cases. Prosecutors are reviewing evidence and talking to victims’ relatives to get their input.
“It’s a do-over of tremendous proportions, given some of the most serious criminal conduct and the worst thing one human being can do to another,” said Bill Montgomery, Maricopa County’s top prosecutor.
So far, only a handful of prisoners have petitioned for new sentences, though others are expected to follow suit; one has received a new term.
Jack David Jewitt, who was resentenced on June 26 in Pima County, originally got natural life for his part in the 1993 shooting death of Ellen Marie Knauss, whose body was found in the desert south of Tucson after her SUV had been carjacked from a mall. Jewitt was 14 then. Attorneys in the case say he participated in the carjacking but that David Anthony Trostle, his then-20-year-old accomplice, fired the shot that killed Knauss.
Prosecutors negotiated to resentence Jewitt in light of the Supreme Court decision, given his age at the time of the crime and his lesser involvement, said Rick Unklesbay, a prosecutor in Pima County. Now 38, Jewitt received life with the possibility of release after serving 28 years, making him eligible for parole in September 2021.
“Because of the fact that he was only 14 and under the peer-pressure influence of David Trostle, his crimes reflect inherent immaturity rather than irreparable corruption,” said Jewitt’s attorney, Alex Heveri.
Not all requests are expected to go as smoothly. It’s unclear whether courts have to consider a prisoner’s rehabilitation efforts or merely rely on evidence gathered years earlier to determine whether crimes reflect irreparable corruption, Unklesbay said.
Montgomery said age alone cannot become a fallback that excuses criminal conduct.
“It can’t be something where you look at every single youth and default to, ‘Well, because this person was a youth, everything a youth does must represent transient immaturity,'” he said, adding that natural life sentences are still needed for juveniles who commit horrific crimes.
An Arizona Supreme Court decision late last year examined the resentencing of two prisoners who are serving natural life sentences for killings committed when they were juveniles. The justices concluded that the Legislature could reduce the sentences by changing state law. The court’s majority opinion noted that “it is not a change that can be mandated by judicial decision.”
Democratic state Rep. Reginald Bolding filed a bill this session that would have eliminated natural life altogether for juvenile offenders. The bill failed without getting a committee hearing.
Even though prosecutors say a change in state law isn’t necessary to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions, Bolding said he will push his proposal again next year and include a provision that would reduce the sentences of juvenile lifers already in prison so that they are eligible for parole after serving 25 or 35 years, depending on the age of the murder victims.
In 20 states and the District of Columbia there is no life-without-release sentence for juveniles.