FRANKFORT, Ky. — Four people convicted of murder as juveniles in Kentucky are using recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to challenge their sentences.
Kentucky does not allow life without parole for juveniles. The state’s highest court banned such sentences in 1968 for juveniles charged with rape. In 1998 the state Legislature passed a law allowing life without parole as an option in some murder and kidnapping cases, but the law did not affect juveniles.
However, since 1981, four who were minors at the time of their crimes have received sentences of life without parole or “functional” life without parole through a variety of unique circumstances.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court 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 inmate whose crime reflects “permanent incorrigibility” should have a chance at release one day. The rulings say kids are different because of poor judgment based on their age, their susceptibility to negative influences and their greater capacity for change.
A spokeswoman for Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear said the court ruling does not apply to Kentucky’s cases because the four individuals “did not receive a mandatory life without parole sentence.”
But here’s a look at the unique Kentucky cases where four people who were minors at the time of their crimes did receive sentences of life without parole or “functional” life without parole.
Kevin Stanford was 17 in 1981 when he was charged with the rape and murder of Barbel Poore, a gas station clerk in Louisville. He was convicted and sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the sentence, and for years afterward the case of Stanford v. Kentucky was the standard that allowed juveniles to be executed.
In 2003, citing his opposition to the death penalty for juveniles, then-Democratic Gov. Paul Patton commuted Stanford’s sentence to life without parole. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed death sentences for minors as unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. A Kentucky appeals court said the ruling did not apply to Stanford, because Patton’s clemency order meant Stanford’s death sentence did not exist.
Citing the latest Supreme Court rulings on life without parole, Stanford has asked Republican Gov. Matt Bevin for a new clemency order making him eligible for parole. Bevin has not acted. Stanford has also filed a lawsuit, asking a judge to force Bevin to issue a new order.
When he first went to prison, Stanford was placed in classes with mentally disabled inmates. He has since earned an associate degree and completed programs on moral reconciliation and anger management. His clemency application included letters from 10 people, including a former warden and a pastor, attesting to his changed nature.
Sophal Phon was 16 in 1996 when he was charged with killing a couple in Bowling Green and shooting their 12-year-old daughter in the head. Phon was a member of the “Asian Boyz” gang and was directed by the leader to pull the trigger, according to court records.
Phon pleaded guilty, and prosecutors sought the death penalty. Phon’s lawyers asked the judge to give the jury the option of life without parole, hoping to avoid execution for his client. The state Supreme Court later upheld the sentence.
In 2013, Phon asked for a new sentencing hearing given the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ban. A state appeals court rejected Phon’s request, but the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. It is pending.
DAVID BUCHANAN and MICHAEL FUGATE
David Buchanan was 16 and Michael Fugate was 15 when they were convicted of murder in separate cases. Both were given life sentences with the possibility of parole. In each case, the parole board denied their request for release and ordered them to serve out the remainder of their life sentences. The ruling means they can never receive another parole board hearing.
Earlier this year, Buchanan and Fugate sued the Kentucky Parole Board, arguing that the decision to deny them parole gave them a “functional” sentence of life without parole and was thus unconstitutional given the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings. The case is pending.
Buchanan was an accomplice in the Stanford crime, but Stanford fatally shot the victim.
Fugate was convicted of killing 16-year-old Ricky Collins in 1982. The teenagers had skipped school to go shoot some guns when Fugate shot Collins and then cut his head off with an ax to bury the body. While awaiting trial, Fugate was convicted of a second murder committed when he was an adult. Fugate has completed the sentence for that conviction.
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