(Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles where Law Week explores the cases of 48 juveniles whose life-in-prison sentences violate a U.S. Supreme Court opinion.)
By Hannah Garcia, LAW WEEK COLORADO
The riddle over the legitimacy of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, borne from a Supreme Court ruling, continues to escape a solution, both nationally and in Colorado.
While not yet dead, a Colorado bill seeking new sentences for a class of offenders serving unconstitutional punishments faces an uncertain future, much like the issue at large.
The House Judiciary Committee, in a unanimous vote, indefinitely postponed House Bill 1292 on March 26. The prospective legislation, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Daniel Kagan and Pete Lee, would provide statutory relief for life-without-parole inmates who were juveniles but convicted as adults for first-class felonies between 1990 and 2006.
Largely a response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and a lack of legislative action, the bill uses language from the Miller v. Alabama decision that calls mandatory life without parole for minors involved in murders a violation of the Eighth Amendment because “children are constitutionally different than adults for purposes of sentencing.”
There is a national split among state and federal courts on whether the ruling applies retroactively, and there are disparate solutions within the Colorado Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, on March 23 that could settle the question of Miller’s retroactivity while Colorado’s high court could issue a ruling on the matter this year after already hearing four appeals.
In short, Kagan and Lee’s bill would require courts to sentence any juvenile convicted as an adult for a class-1 felony to either a range of 24 to 48 years in prison with a mandatory 10-year parole or life imprisonment with a chance at parole after 20 years.
The bill would also apply retroactively to juvenile life-without-parole inmates convicted for felonies committed on or after July 1, 1990, and before July 1, 2006, calling for new sentencing hearings based on factors listed in the Miller decision, including developmental maturity, criminal and family history, intent, mental health, exposure to trauma and ability to rehabilitate.
The committee hearing lasted just more than 18 minutes, and Kagan spoke for seven minutes before he made a motion to postpone his own bill. In developing the legislation, Kagan described it as “an extraordinarily candid, long, diligent effort” and talked about trying to find a balance among all stakeholders, from the inmates themselves to the families of victims of murders committed decades ago.
While he didn’t elaborate on the specifics, Kagan told the committee that the bill hit a roadblock because “sometimes you don’t reach agreement,” with most opposition coming from the families of victims.
‘ALL MEMORIES NOW’
Kagan’s bill is not the first legislative attempt to establish parole opportunities for juvenile charged with first-degree felonies in Colorado. Dave Wohlers has become accustomed to speaking publicly about juveniles in the criminal justice system and the attendant consequences.
Wohlers, now serving as police chief in Idaho Springs, was the third responding officer to his own father’s shooting in 1992. He was a patrol sergeant with the Clear Creek County Sheriff ’s Office when his father, a veteran on the Colorado State Patrol, was shot in the head during a traffic stop near Georgetown.
“I had just got out of service, was actually in the driveway and heard the call, and I knew there was a pretty good chance it was my dad,” Wohlers said. “(When I arrived at the crime scene) I could tell it was a real serious wound. I’d seen enough know it was a pretty grim situation.”
The family pulled him off life support the next day, his 31st wedding anniversary to his wife, Julie. They were high school sweethearts and married when Lyle Wohlers was 20 years old. His son was 30 when the elder officer was killed.
Marcus Fernandez and T.J. White, both 15 at the time, were charged and convicted for the shooting. Fernandez, the one who pulled the trigger, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole while White served 11 years before his release in 2005.
“I don’t know you get to a place like that when you’re 15 — pretty sinister behavior,” Dave Wohlers said. The family publicly advocated for the death penalty, he said.
“When suspects are in custody, it starts the process of going through the trial and seeing justice, whatever that is or can be,” Wohlers said.
Wohlers, an only child, gave his father’s first name to both of his sons as a middle name. He keeps the elder Wohlers’ service weapon in a display case, and his children have grown up learning about their grandfather, including a love of sports and fishing, his competitive nature and his reasons for joining law enforcement.
“They voice their wish to have known him, but I think just being open with them and telling them exactly what happened and what the consequences were, and everything else is just a part of it,” Wohlers said. “It’s something they’ll live with the rest of their lives as well, and they should be good stewards of that.”
Wohlers said he thinks about his father daily but avoids buckling too much from the grief or a need for vengeance. After losing other friends in the line of duty, the police chief said being at the business end of bad intentions is “part of the business,” and his father’s role in his life is “all memories now.”
“You can’t be destroyed by what happened,” Wohlers said. “It’s a challenge, but you move through it.”
Even still, Wohlers said he would “question the wisdom” behind any measure that would change the sentences of Colorado’s 48 juvenile life-without-parole inmates.
“Victim’s families are who are left holding the pieces of these cases and what’s left of their future,” Wohlers said. “We’ve had our justice and tried to move on. To start the whole thing over again and go though the process again, I don’t think, is fair. We’ve had our day in court. If they could just leave us alone and let us move on.”
‘WILL IT EVER END?’
Probably an odd notion to most, Candy Cheatham is expecting to soon see the now-famous name of her father’s killer in a familiar textbook.
“It hasn’t made the book yet, but it will probably be in the next edition,” she said.
Cheatham teaches a corrections course at Faulkner University in Alabama as an adjunct instructor, and she’s been in the profession herself for more than a decade. Evan Miller, the namesake petitioner in Miller v. Alabama, was convicted of killing his neighbor Cole Cannon in 2006.
Miller was 14 and his co-defendant, Colby Smith, was 16 at the time of the murder. Miller and his mother were living in a Lawrence County trailer park. Evidence at trial indicated that both teenagers “robbed and savagely beat” Cannon with a baseball bat before setting his trailer on fire, according to a 2010 Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruling.
Smith pleaded guilty and Miller chose a jury trial; both were given life sentences without the possibility of parole. Cheatham was 27 when Cannon was killed.
Through years of appeals and national attention, Cheatham might be used to getting updates about Miller’s case through media and third parties. She’s currently waiting for a resentencing hearing coming up this spring.
“It’s hard thing to answer when people ask how this has impacted your life,” Cheatham said. “There are so many different things. It just feels kind of never-ending and incomplete.”
Cheatham described the pangs that came with the aftermath of her father’s murder — the lingering headlines, court volleys, national scrutiny, all the legal and personal opinions, being “left in limbo.” And another question that doesn’t yet have a real answer: “Will it ever end?”
“My dad was murdered in 2003, and here we are in 2015, and we’re supposed to have resentencing hearing in May,” she said. “You try to repress a little bit so you don’t dwell on horrible it was, but you’re forced to have to go back to that place — to rehear and relive and reimagine those things that occurred.”
Cannon never met his six grand-children, two each from Cheatham and her sister and brother. Three have his name as part of their own.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my dad,” Cheatham said. “He would have loved this, having and knowing his grandchildren, but that opportunity was taken.”
Walter and Margaret Medla wrote a letter to the House Judiciary Committee opposing House Bill 1292. Their grandson, Greg Medla, was one of five victims — possibly six — of Alexander Pogosyan, who was 17 when he and friend Michael Martinez allegedly went on a revenge-fueled shooting rampage in Aurora on Sept. 7, 1998. Greg Medla was 18 when he was killed, found shot along with his 37-year-old mother, Penny Bowman, and 16-year-old Marissa Avalos. Two other 18-year-olds, Eddie Morales Jr. and Zach Obert, were shot in another house nearby.
Martinez himself was found shot to death near Park Meadows Mall hours later, and although Pogosyan was initially thought to be a suspect, his death is still unsolved. The judge sentenced Pogosyan to five consecutive life sentences, all without the possibility of parole.
Pogosyan never displayed any remorse during or aft er the trial, according to the Medlas, and should never be released. Their son suffered alcoholism and difficulty keeping jobs after the murders, the couple said in the letter.
“Not only did he destroy those five lovely people by giving them the ‘death sentence’, but also their families like ours will never be the same, ever,” The Medlas wrote. “Through the years we thought it would become easier to deal with, and the memories would just become memories. But it hasn’t, our hearts still ache very badly, over and over and over, it just never stops.”
‘I HAVE FAILED’
The point of House Bill 1292, according to Kagan, is “to resolve a problem.”
“This bill has been an attempt to resolve that problem — how to end the cruel and unusual punishment that is being meted out and to do it in a way that does honor and justice to victims, to the people of Colorado and to the traditions of fairness that we hold so dear,” Kagan told the committee.
The lawmaker referenced how the issue has volleyed among appellate courts, state and federal. He quoted the Colorado Court of Appeals opinion in People v. Terrance Wilder, issued Feb. 26, that put forward a sentencing scheme it deemed in accordance with Miller while recognizing “this is an area for legislative action.”
With a defendant sentenced under an unconstitutional statute, “the trial court is, in effect, left with no applicable legislative sentencing guidelines to apply on remand,” the opinion said.
Kagan described the opinion as “the words of a court crying out for the legislature to act in the area that they have recognized … is a power vested exclusively in the legislature.”
After discussions with district attorneys, victims and all members of the House Judiciary Committee, Kagan said, “I have tried to synthesize those thoughts into a plan that can win wide support. I have failed.”
Although, he plans to keep pushing for “the agreement that has eluded me and us this far.”
Some members of the committee expressed concern about victims’ families, several of which apparently came to testify, before finding out the bill would not receive a vote to advance.
Committee members received “numerous letters and emails,” Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen said, “and I’m very sorry for some of the things you’ve been through, and thank you for being here today.”
“I just think one of our paramount things that we need to remember down here as a legislature is that there are victims, and they have lost someone they loved, and we can never take that and put it aside as we’re making these decisions,” Rep. Polly Lawrence, a Republican, said “I appreciate the fact that you’ve (Kagan) decided to lay this over indefinitely. I’m sure the discussion will continue.”
Rep. John Buckner, another Democrat, said he disliked that Kagan had to postpone the bill “because I would hope that we would be able to come to an agreed solution on this one, but I’m sure we’ll keep working until we do.”
Kagan said he thought there was a consensus about the bill, with some amendments that would lead to a successful vote, but it did not become clear there was no way forward as late as 1:05 that afternoon, 25 minutes before the scheduled hearing.
“The tragedy is that in a system like this, it does take a toll, and I understand that,” Kagan said, “and I sorely wish that if this bill were to have fallen apart, we could have known earlier.”
— Hannah Garcia, HGarcia@circuitmedia.com