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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Friday, August 8, 2014

Retired Judges Urge Michigan Legislature to Retroactively Apply Rescission of Juvenile Lifer Law

Retired Oakland Circuit
Judge Edward Sosnick
By:  Timothy P. Flynn

As a young lawyer in the early 90s, I accepted an unusual professional gig.  In order to become an adjunct law professor at my law school alma mater, University of Detroit, they wanted me to first teach law and prisoners' civil rights to female inmates at the now-closed Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, MI, under a federally mandated education program.

What struck me about the inmate students back then were the number of women convicted of the so-called "drug lifer law".  If you were convicted of delivery of more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin, your sentence was life without the possibility of parole.

In the late 90s, former Governor John Engler, a pretty conservative governor, signed the rescission of that law.  In doing so, the Legislature and the Governor made the rescission retroactive to the hundreds of convicts that were racking-up decades of prison time in the MDOC.  Soon after the law was executed, all of the drug-lifers were paroled with time served.

Fast forward to this week, and we see a group of retired circuit court judges calling for our state legislature to take action on the juvenile lifer law; specifically, to pass legislation making the rescission of the law retroactive to the nearly 350 inmates doing life sentences for capital convictions when they were juveniles.

What really caught my attention was that Retired Oakland Circuit Judge Edward Sosnick was among the judges signing the Freep editorial.  Judge Sosnick was a good judge.  Whenever I had a client standing before Judge Sosnick at a sentencing hearing, I always walked away thinking my client received a fair sentence.

Here is issue framed in a nutshell: SCOTUS ruled in 2012 that state juvenile lifer laws violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual" punishment.  In their wisdom, however, the High Court was silent as to the retroactive application of their ruling, leaving the states to figure out what to do with their aging populations of the juvenile-convicted.

Here in Michigan, the Attorney General won a legal battle a few months back at the Michigan Supreme Court in a case holding that the rescission of the juvenile lifer ban does not apply retroactively.  In arguing the case, the Michigan AG focused on the rights of the victims; most often, the families of individuals that were murdered by the juvenile lifers now so desperate for parole.

As the retired trial judges know, however, not all of those 350 convicted juvenile lifers were cold-blooded juvenile murders; some of those convictions were based on sketchy evidence; some of the juveniles had highly attenuated involvement in the murders for which they were convicted.  Also notable in the legal battle were the 110 former prosecutors and trial judges that filed an amicus brief in the Michigan Supreme Court case calling for retroactive application of the rescission.

Here at the Law Blogger, we'd bet that each of the judges that signed the Freep editorial calling for retroactive application of the rescission of the juvenile lifer ban presided over some of the trials of the convicted lifers.  We'd also bet that the retired judges occasionally saw juveniles charged, tried, and acquitted on capital offenses, dodging the bullet of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

If the group of 350 juvenile lifers, believed to be the largest in the nation, have any chance at parole, it will have to come from the Michigan Legislature as the highest courts have spoken.

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