Legally Speaking: Sixteen, and Life to Go (Part 2)

John G. Browning Aug. 8, 2011, 4:35pm

The first installment of this series examined the case of Chad Uptergrove, tried as an adult and convicted of capital murder for a crime committed when he was only 16 — a crime perpetrated by an older friend.

Despite having no prior felonies, leading police to the assailant and the murder weapon, and despite questionable evidence that he was even present for the robbery gone bad, Chad was sentenced to the same prison term as the actual killer — life.

It was a punishment that hit many in the Fannin County community of Bonham with "shock and disbelief," as local resident Sid Andrew says.

"To see a teenager with no prior felonies sent to prison for life is unrealistic." Rick Hazelip, owner of a Bonham detail shop, observes. "With Chad, I see a 16-year-old kid sentenced to a life sentence as an adult and for a crime he only stood witness to. Where is justice?"

Many Fannin County residents, including the county sheriff, former district attorney, and even relatives of the murder victim Jimmy Brannon, wrote the Texas Board of Pardons & Paroles seeking to have Chad Uptergrove's sentence commuted, but to no avail.

In many ways, Texas' treatment of juveniles convicted of capital crimes has followed the ebb and flow of national debate on the subject. After Texas and most states had preserved the distinction between juvenile and adult offenders for nearly a century, rising crime rates in the 1980s and 1990s and heightened media focus on so-called "juvenile super-predators" led many states to pass laws allowing more children to be tried in adult criminal courts, and providing judges with more sentencing options to respond to serious and violent youth crime.

The boy next door could very well be the monster next door, lawmakers reasoned, and in 1996 Texas legislators lowered the minimum age for certification as an adult to 14 years of age for certain crimes. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was permissible to execute offenders who were at least 16 at the time of their crimes

In 2005, however, the Court did an about face. In Roper v. Simmons, a sharply divided Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that executing those who committed murder as juveniles was a violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, concluded that "The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed."

By 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court extended its reasoning to non-homicide offenses, ruling that life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes such as rape or armed robbery were also unconstitutional.

Part of the reason for the evolving attitude toward juvenile crime is a growing body of research on brain development in adolescents. Such research has provided scientific confirmation of what parents have known all along: teens don't make decisions like adults and they are more susceptible to peer pressure.

While teenagers have the intellectual capacity to understand the long-term consequences of their actions, the still-developing areas in their frontal lobes that govern impulse control mean that they won't be as likely or able as an adult to consider those consequences before acting.

Another reason for the softening stance on juvenile crime may have been the realization by many educators, psychologists, corrections officials, lawmakers, and others that life and life without parole sentences take away the second chance from which many youths would benefit.

One of the most compelling amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida came from a group of former juvenile offenders who turned their lives around. The group included award-winning actor Charles S. Dutton (who at age 17 stabbed someone to death in a street fight) and former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson. As a teenager, Simpson had assaulted a police officer and committed arson on federal property; he candidly characterized his younger self as "a monster."

Texas' position on punishing juvenile offenders has changed to an extent over recent years. Prior to 2005, juveniles convicted of capital murder could receive the death penalty or a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years. In 2005, the Texas Legislature changed that law, letting jurors decide between execution or life without parole for capital murder.

Reacting to the Roper v. Simmons decision, in 2005 Texas commuted the sentences of 28 death row inmates who had been juveniles when they committed their crimes. By the 2009 Legislative Session, lawmakers changed their minds again, passing Senate Bill 839 and eliminating sentences of life without parole for juveniles who had been tried as adults and convicted of capital murder.

However, the change in the law left approximately 20 inmates who had been convicted of capital murder as juvenile offenders between 2005 and the 2009 passage of Senate Bill 839 in a state of limbo.

Chris Meadoux, a Hurricane Katrina evacuee who killed two people in 2007 when he was 16, was one of these. Had the crime been committed by a juvenile after Sept. 1, 2009, he would have had a shot at parole after serving 40 years behind bars.

State Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen, author of S.B. 839, says he intended for the law to be retroactive. But in considering Chris Meadoux's case in November 2010, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld his sentence of life without any chance at parole.

Writing for a 7–2 court, Judge Charles Holcomb said "Given the enormity of the crimes committed by juvenile capital offenders, the Legislature could reasonably conclude that such offenders are incorrigible and that the only prudent course of action is to separate them from society forever."

In dissent, Judge Lawrence Meyers argued for ordering new punishment hearings for Meadoux and the 19 other teens sentenced to remain in jail until they died, calling it "ridiculous to say that a juvenile who was not even eligible for the death penalty" should receive a harsher, no-parole sentence.

In the 2011 Legislative Session, Sen. Hinojosa filed S.B. 973, intended to give retroactive effect to the 2009 law, but the measure failed to make it out of committee.

One of the 20 juvenile offenders saw his hopes brighten somewhat when the Galveston Court of Appeals set aside his conviction in 2010. Litrey Demond Turner was facing life without parole for his alleged role in the 2006 murder of a convenience store clerk.

Turner was 15 at the time; his 19-year-old friend Andrew Brown III shot the clerk, but pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 40 years. The appeals court ordered a new trial for Turner on grounds unrelated to his juvenile status, a trial Turner still awaits. The 19 others convicted as juveniles before the change in the law remain in prison.

According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, an estimated 200,000 youth are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults each year in the United States. Forty-five states give juvenile court judges the discretion to transfer a case to adult criminal courts; 15 states require juvenile court judges to transfer a case to an adult court in the case of certain offenses and factors such as an offender's prior record. Fifteen states give prosecutors the latitude to try a juvenile defendant as an adult.

While most states have policies mandating that juveniles certified as adults be housed in juvenile facilities rather than in adult prisons (some until at least age 18, and others until age 21), Texas is not among them. In Texas, juveniles transferred to adult criminal courts await trial in adult county jails, most of which have no option but to house them in isolation for their own safety.

A 2009 investigation by the Houston Press found that the certified juveniles aged 14 to 16 years in the Harris County jail spent 23 hours a day in lock-up for months on end, an isolated state that can result in rampant depression, anxiety and paranoia. According to one national study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, youth confined in adult jails and prisons are 36 times more likely to commit suicide then their peers held in juvenile facilities.

Besides the dangers to their mental health, juveniles housed in adult correctional facilities also face greater physical risks. Nationally, they are 50 percent more likely to be subject to physical assault with a weapon by other inmates.

The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission concluded in 2009 that "[m]ore than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse."

And, it's not simply the juveniles themselves who suffer, but the community at large. A task force of the Centers for Disease Control reviewed all available scientific research and concluded that transferring youthful offenders to the adult system not only has no deterrent value, but actually increases the offenders' rate of violence and recidivism. One national study found that transferred juveniles who spent at least a year in an adult prison had a 100 percent greater risk of violent recidivism.

But are those minors who are certified as adults, convicted, and sentenced to adult prisons in Texas really the "worst of the worst," so different in their criminality from their counterparts in juvenile facilities so as to warrant such greater risks to their physical and mental health?

A March 2011 study by Michele Deitch of the LBJ School of Public Affairs points out some eye-opening statistics. Her report, entitled "Juveniles in the Adult Criminal Justice System in Texas," dispels many assumptions about the violence and persistent criminal behavior of youthful offenders who are doing "adult time for adult crime."

Twenty-nine percent of all certified juveniles are, like Chad Uptergrove, first-time offenders. Seventy-two percent don't have a prior history of violent crime, and 89 percent have never even been committed to the Texas Youth Commission, suggesting that few of them have a serious history of delinquency of any kind.

Forty-four percent of those transferred to an adult criminal court had either no previous involvement with the local juvenile justice system or only one prior referral. In other words, in nearly half of these cases, the justice system rushed to a judgment that nothing else works for these juveniles, when in fact the truth is that nothing was tried.

This "writing off" of youth offenders by banishing them to the adult system happens with disturbing frequency. In 2010 alone, there were 229 certifications to adult criminal courts, as opposed to only 109 juveniles given determinate sentences — a mechanism by which a minor can be committed to the Texas Youth Commission until he or she becomes an adult (thereby enabling him or her to benefit from educational and rehabilitative programs), before being transferred to the adult prison system.

Despite this disparity in sentencing, there was very little difference between the two groups in the offenses committed or the criminal histories. And under Texas law, the option of certifying a youth offender isn't limited to the worst crimes; many non-violent felonies can qualify a juvenile for transfer to an adult court. Determinate sentencing, on the other hand, is an option reserved for only the 30 most serious offenses.

If the evolution of the law regarding the treatment of juveniles in the adult criminal system has taught us anything, it is that children are different. The fact that they are less able than adults to control their behavior has to be weighed when punishing them, while the fact that they have a better shot at being rehabilitated should be considered when incarcerating them.

The teenager who commits even the most serious crime, homicide, is still changing and developing; there is no way of predicting what kind of adult he or she will become in ten or fifteen years. Those juveniles convicted before the change in the law and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole will not rejoin society in anything but a coffin.

In the case of Chad Uptergrove, a child capable of redemption was sent to be imprisoned alongside adults after his 1993 conviction. One has to wonder what kind of man will return to society after at least 40 years in the penitentiary?

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