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New law gives Missouri murderers convicted as juveniles the chance for parole

New law gives Missouri murderers convicted as juveniles the chance for parole

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JEFFERSON CITY • Beginning Sunday, dozens of inmates convicted of some of Missouri’s most heinous crimes will win the right to argue for their freedom.

They include a prisoner convicted of killing a security guard in St. Louis in 1990 and an inmate from St. Charles who brutally beat, raped and killed a 15-year-old girl at a St. Louis County high school and later killed his cellmate in prison.

The change is part of a new law approved by the state Legislature in May and signed by Gov. Jay Nixon that closes what prosecutors called a “giant hole” in the state’s sentencing system and brings Missouri in compliance with federal court rulings.

It is among dozens of new laws that go into effect Sunday.

At issue in the revamped sentencing law are two court rulings that left the legal system in limbo when it comes to sentences for violent youth.

In each of the cases, the inmates committed the murders when they were under the age of 18.

A 2005 federal court ruling, however, found juveniles cannot be sentenced to death. That was followed by a 2012 decision that found there also must be a sentencing option for those same prisoners in addition to or other than life without parole.

Under the new law, a person who was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a crime committed before the person turned 18 years is eligible for a parole hearing after serving 25 years.

A person who is sentenced after Sunday to any term of imprisonment except life without parole for an offense of first-degree murder committed before the person turned 18 is eligible for a parole hearing after serving 25 years and is eligible for another hearing after serving 35 years.

It is not clear how many inmates will immediately qualify for the opportunity to seek a parole hearing.

A study by the Philips Black Project, a public interest law firm representing inmates with lengthy sentences, found that the city of St. Louis has the fifth-highest concentration of juveniles serving life sentences in the country, with as many as 41 cases.

For the prisoners, changing their parole status to comply with the law won’t come automatically.

Inmates will have to first submit a request to the parole board to review their cases. And, they must have already served 25 years of their sentence before petitioning the board. Missouri Department of Corrections spokesman David Owen also said offenders must also notify the prosecuting attorney in the original jurisdiction where the offense occurred.

“It’s on them (the prisoners) to petition the parole board,” added Jason Lamb, executive director of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Prosecutors acknowledged that some Missourians might have wanted to eliminate life without parole as a sentencing option for youth. But, in a letter to Nixon urging him to sign the legislation, Kevin Hillman, president of the prosecuting attorneys association, outlined a series of inmates and their crimes to highlight why tough sentences should remain intact.

Among them is Louis “Jabar” Clark III, who at age 16 in 1995 fired 15 rounds into the car of a rival drug dealer, striking Morris Howell and his 2-year-old daughter. When the victims didn’t die immediately, Clark approached and delivered an execution-style shot to each above their left ears.

Nancy Cambria of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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