The Indiana Court of Appeals has ordered a new sentencing hearing for a Gary man serving 183 years in prison for two gang-related murders he committed when he was 16 years old.
In a 3-0 decision, the appellate court said a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, all but prohibiting life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, similarly applies to de facto juvenile life without parole sentences, such as the one issued to Donnell Wilson.
Wilson, now 22, was 16 years old in 2013 when he shot and killed two brothers, Shaqwone Ham, 19, and Charles Wood, 18, in a gang territory dispute in Gary's Glen Park neighborhood. He also committed an armed robbery shortly before the murders, according to court records.
Lake Superior Judge Salvador Vasquez sentenced Wilson to 60 years in prison for murdering Wood, doubled to 120 years under the state's criminal gang enhancement; 55 years for killing Ham; six years for armed robbery; and two years for conspiracy to commit gang activity.
Assuming good behavior, Wilson will be eligible for release from the Indiana Department of Correction on June 6, 2104, when he will be 107 years old — if he's still alive.
Judge John Baker, writing on behalf of the appellate court, said that amounts to a life without parole sentence for a crime committed by a juvenile, which he said generally is not permitted by the Supreme Court's ruling in Miller v. Alabama, absent special circumstances.
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"We find that Miller applies to sentences for juveniles that amount to a life sentence, regardless of the label applied by the trial court or the state," Baker said.
"In other words, if the effect of a sentence is that the juvenile will remain in prison for the rest of his days, with no meaningful opportunity to gain early release based on demonstrated rehabilitation, then that defendant has the right to a Miller sentencing hearing."
Based on that finding, the appeals court vacated Wilson's prison term and ordered a new sentencing hearing that takes into account the attendant characteristics of youth in general, as well as the youth and characteristics of the defendant being sentenced.
In Wilson's case, Baker noted that Wilson grew up in an "urban war zone" where as a child he saw at least three people shot, Wilson himself was shot twice as a child, and Wilson was forced to live "under threat of serious injury and death nearly every day."
There is no specific timeline for Wilson to be re-sentenced. He remains incarcerated at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.
Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill Jr. also still can ask the Indiana Supreme Court to reverse the appellate ruling and restore Wilson's original prison term.