The Indiana Supreme Court appears unlikely to rule that the enhanced sentencing procedures mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court before a juvenile can be ordered to serve life in prison without parole similarly apply to de facto life sentences.
The state's high court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case involving a Gary man serving 181 years in prison for two gang-related murders he committed as a teenager.
Three justices — Steven David, Mark Massa and Geoffrey Slaughter — seemed to reject the central holding of a June 27 Court of Appeals decision that said a life sentence in all but name for a juvenile offender must be preceded by a hearing that takes into account the attendant characteristics of youth in general, as well as the youth and characteristics of the defendant being sentenced.
Slaughter, a Crown Point native, said the U.S. Supreme Court did not reach that conclusion in its 2012 Miller v. Alabama ruling, which held only mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
"Why would we do that?" Slaughter asked. "Why would we not take the Supreme Court at its word?"
Massa questioned how trial judges would know when a certain term of years is sufficiently equivalent to a life sentence to make the enhanced procedures apply: "Are we going to look at actuarial tables?"
On the other hand, Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Christopher Goff suggested that while the Indiana Supreme Court might not require trial judges take the extra steps mandated by Miller, it nevertheless could urge them to do so for particularly heinous crimes involving lengthy prison terms for juvenile offenders simply to ensure all relevant mitigating factors are considered in sentencing.
"I didn't get the other side of the story and that's what I'm struggling with right now," Rush said about the Gary case.
According to court records, Donnell Wilson, now 23, 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.
Wilson was sentenced to 60 years in prison for Wood's murder, 55 years for killing Ham, 6 years for armed robbery and an additional 60 years under Indiana's criminal gang enhancement statute, records show.
Wilson's attorney, Katherine Province, repeatedly urged the Supreme Court to either order a Miller-compliant resentencing or to use its inherent authority to resentence Wilson, since she said Wilson can be rehabilitated and deserves a chance to someday leave prison.
In contrast, Deputy Attorney General Ellen Meilaender argued Wilson was appropriately sentenced for two premeditated killings, plus an armed robbery, for which Wilson did not express remorse or show any signs of mental illness.
A ruling by the Supreme Court is expected sometime next year.