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Missouri's top court hears 2 cases of St. Louis juveniles given life sentences

Missouri's top court hears 2 cases of St. Louis juveniles given life sentences

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JEFFERSON CITY   •   Two St. Louis cases were among the first to go before the state's high court Tuesday as it tries to decide what should be done with dozens of juvenile murder convicts who were sentenced to mandatory terms of life without parole before the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

One of those is the high-profile case of Ledale Nathan Jr., who was 16 when he and an accomplice stormed into a home in the LaSalle Park neighborhood of St. Louis, burglarized it and shot the family members inside. One woman was killed and two others, a city firefighter and police officer, were wounded. 

Nathan, who was certified as an adult after a judge ruled he could not be rehabilitated under state juvenile codes, was convicted of first-degree murder and a range of other charges and sentenced to life without parole by a judge in 2011.

In Missouri, first-degree murder carries only two sentencing options: life without parole, or death (which the U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled could not apply to juveniles). 

But in the June 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that while juveniles can be sentenced to life without parole, it cannot be automatic and must only be done after the judge or jury has the opportunity to hear mitigating circumstances that include the defendant's age and a range of other factors. 

The state legislature is expected to ultimately decide how to change the statutory range of punishment to comport with the court ruling, clearing things up for cases going forward.

But in the meantime, the state supreme court is being asked to consider what the Miller decision means for the older cases — both those on direct appeal, and those that have exhausted their state court remedies. 

There are 84 cases in Missouri in which a person is currently serving life without parole for an offense committed as a juvenile, according to the last count by the Missouri Department of Corrections. Of those cases, 46 of the offenders were age 17 at the time of the crime, 25 were age 16, 11 were age 15, and two were age 14. 

Of the three cases argued on Tuesday, two were being heard on direct appeal, one being the Nathan case. The state, represented by Attorney General Chris Koster's office, conceded that the two cases should get a new sentencing hearing, but argued the only options should be life — which amounts to 30 years in Missouri — or life without parole. 

"Allowing life and life without parole achieves as close as the court can get without adding words or redrafting the statute," argued Assistant Attorney General Evan Buchheim, in the Nathan case. Buchheim said until the legislature decide on anything different, "we've got to work with what we've got."

But Nathan's attorney, Jessica Hathaway, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued as a friend of the court, contended that route would go beyond the court's authority by rewriting the statute. They argued instead for a sentencing range that applies for second degree murder, or a Class A felony, which is ten to 30 years (life).

"We think it's important that the broad range of sentences be available for the court when they re-sentence," said Anthony Rothert of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, in a later interview. "We think that’s what Miller intended and that everything should be on the table."

Similar arguments were made in the other case being heard on direct appeal, the St. Louis case of Laron Hart, convicted of the fatally shooting of a man and robbery of a woman at gunpoint in January 2010, when he was 17. 

In the third case involves the 1995 conviction of a McDonald County woman, Sheena Eastburn, as an accomplice in the shooting death of her husband. The state has argued Miller does not apply to her case because she has exhausted her appeals, among other procedural issues. 

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Jennifer S. Mann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Related to this story

The Missouri criminal justice system is not prepared to cope with the possible repercussions of a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on whether juvenile killers serving life sentences should be made eligible for parole.

The state has known for some time that this decision was a possibility but, unlike many other states which have done everything from abolishing juvenile life without parole to granting new sentencing hearings, Missouri is still in limbo.

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