LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court issued precedent-setting decisions Friday that gave hope to 27 prison inmates serving life terms for murders they committed as juveniles.
Nebraska's high court ruled that three Omaha men who were convicted when teenagers were unconstitutionally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. While the Supreme Court upheld their murder convictions, it ordered that all three be given new sentences.
The rulings for Juan Castaneda, Eric Ramirez and Douglas Mantich came about in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said mandatory life without parole for juveniles violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Nebraska's law formerly required life terms for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.
The three inmates will return to Douglas County District Court to be resentenced under a law passed last year that allows sentences from 40 years to life. The new law also requires judges to consider factors that could mitigate the youth's responsibility.
“It's the trend that seems to be the most logical, the most moral, the most intellectually honest,” said Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, who represented Castaneda.
Although the Nebraska court ruled largely in favor of the inmates on the constitutional issues, it rejected arguments that sought to remove life as an option during resentencing.
Nor was the court in unanimous agreement on all of the issues involving juvenile killers. In a dissent, two of the judges said the U.S. Supreme Court's decision should not apply to inmates who long ago lost their direct appeals.
“We're pleased the convictions were upheld and trust the sentencing courts will ensure these men face tough penalties that reflect the seriousness of their crimes,” said Shannon Kingery, a spokeswoman for Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning.
Nebraska has 27 inmates serving life for homicides committed when they were younger than 18. The oldest is Luigi Grayer, 58, who was 15 in 1970 when he killed an Omaha woman.
Kingery could not say Friday how many of the cases are under appeal. Riley said he has filed motions on behalf of the remaining 15 inmates convicted in Douglas County.
Friday's decisions stem from a 2012 finding by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, which said automatic life terms without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional. The justices found sentencing laws such as Nebraska's failed to consider that young killers have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”
Assistant Attorney General James Smith argued that Nebraska's sentencing law didn't violate the Miller ruling because the juveniles were sentenced to life in prison, not life “without parole.” Under Nebraska's system, such inmates would have to get their sentences reduced to a term of years by the Nebraska Board of Pardons before earning parole.
Having to first win executive clemency is not the same as parole, the high court ruled, rejecting the state's argument. In other words, a life sentence effectively means life without parole. That was the first key decision, and it came in Castaneda's case and extended to Ramirez.
Castaneda, 21, and Ramirez, 22, were convicted of the 2008 shooting deaths of Tari Glinsmann, 37, and Luis Fernando-Silva, 22, in Omaha. Castaneda was 15 at the time; Ramirez was 17.
The second pivotal question before the court was whether the Miller decision applied to inmates whose convictions had already been upheld on appeal. Because the high court found that the Miller ruling resulted in a “substantive” change to how juvenile killers must be sentenced, it found that the ruling applied retroactively to Mantich.
The Nebraska judges quoted from an opinion of the Iowa Supreme Court, which also determined that juvenile killers should get new hearings.
“The appeal presented extremely complex legal issues, so I'm relieved for Doug (Mantich),” said Omaha attorney Adam Sipple, who represented Mantich. Mantich, 37, was convicted of a 1993 Omaha carjacking that resulted in the shooting of Henry “Hank” Thompson, 20.
At the time the U.S. Supreme Court made the Miller decision, nearly 30 states had laws that mandated life terms for juvenile murderers. Courts in other states have ruled that it represents a “procedural” change to sentencing and therefore, it should not apply retroactively.
Judge William Cassel, who sits on the Nebraska court, dissented with the majority, arguing that the Miller ruling should not have applied retroactively to Mantich's case. He was joined by Chief Justice Mike Heavican.
Correction: The fatal shooting of Henry “Hank” Thompson occurred in 1993. The year was listed incorrectly in a previous version of this story.