Court ruling means some inmates serving life without parole to be re-sentenced

It is not clear how many men in prison will fit into this small group of 17-year-old killers who either entered into plea agreements that included life without parole to avoid the death penatly or were sentenced to life without parole by the jury that convicted them. The list, however, includes.

  • Aric Lee Allen, 38, Bibb County murder in 1993
  • Zachary Harper, 34, Jeff Davis County murder in 1996
  • Joseph Robert Brant II, 36, Coffee County murder in 1994
  • Clevon Jamel Jenkins, 38, Liberty County murder in 1993
  • Jason Johnson, 30, Chatham County murder in 1998
  • Marcus Rolando Moore, 30, Richmond County murder in 2000
  • Manuel Rosillo, 29, Jackson County murder in 2001
  • Jason Lamar Smith, 35, Hall County murder in 1996
  • Brandon Tarver, 31, Toombs County murder in 2000

Their crimes were horrendous.

“Horrific things. Terrible things. Unspeakable, murdered babies things,” said Steven Reba, an attorney at the Barton Child Law and Policy Center, which is affiliated with Emory University and focuses on legal issues of children and teenagers.

“They did bad, bad things,” said Reba, who is representing several men serving life without parole for crimes they committed at 17.

For the most part, their crimes were murder and armed robbery. But what also makes these cases alike is each one was 17 when he killed and each one was facing a death sentence when they went to trial. All their cases ended in a sentence of life without parole, either because that was the jury’s decision or it was part of a plea agreement they made to escape a death sentence.

A recent Georgia Supreme Court decision has made it possible for those teenage killers — many of whom are now in the 30s — to be considered for parole once they have served 25 years, a surprise to victims’ families who thought their loved ones’ killers would never be free.

In that decision, the Georgia Supreme Court said Marcus Rolando Moore was too young to have been facing the death penalty for the murder he committed in 2001. And if he was too young for a death sentence according to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, that meant Georgia law at the time could not have have allowed for a Richmond County judge to sentence him to life without parole.

And there are others, possibly a dozen, like Moore in prison, Reba said, adding that he has so far heard from eight in the same situation as Moore.

The state Supreme Court recently ordered Moore resentenced by a Richmond County judge, but no date has been set.

“He’s a totally different person now,” Reba said of Moore.

Moore is now 30. Reba said he most likely will be in his mid 40s before he will be considered for parole. At the time he committed his crime, the law required at least 25 years of a life sentence before the Parole Board could look at a case.

“Twenty-five years is a long time for a 17-year-old, if not too long ,”said former DeKalb County District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, who is now a defense lawyer.

“To say a 17-year-old is to die in the prison system is a violation ... of the Eighth Amendment” protection from cruel and unusual punishment, Morgan said.

There are almost 1,000 men and women serving life without parole in Georgia. But the group affected by a recent Georgia Supreme Court decision is very small, and now in their 30s.

Twenty years ago the Georgia Legislature approved the punishment of life without parole but only in capital cases. At that time, a death sentence could be brought against a murderer who was 17 at the time of the crime.

But in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court said 17-year-olds could not be sentenced to die because, research was showing, at that age their brains were still developing and they were more impulsive and less likely to make intelligent, thought-out decisions.

While that court decision resulted in several death row inmates getting life sentences because they were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes, nothing happened in regards to the sentences against Moore and others. They fell through the cracks because the judicial system was focused on those who actually were sentenced to death.

Recently, however, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Moore’s sentence was invalid.

“Because Moore could not have been sentenced to death because of his age, Moore could not legally be sentenced to life without parole.” Chief Justice Hugh Thompson wrote in the unanimous decision.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Sam Olens said the AG’s office will not move to have the sentences revised and will instead wait until each appeal is filed.

“If they don’t get their act together in prison, they will never get released,” Reba said. “There is no way any of them are doing less than 25 years before they are out.”

Those resentencings will anger some of the relatives of the victims who thought their loved-one’s killer would never be free.

“I want him to stay in prison for the rest of his life,” Edgar McMillan, the father of one of Moore’s victims, told the Augusta Chronicle soon after the Georgia Supreme Court decision in October. “I wish he would just go away.”

Reba said it could be a few months before he gets Moore a sentencing hearing.

“I am so thankful to be in this position,” Moore wrote Reba a few days after learning there was a chance that someday he could be free.

In late 2000, Moore shot and killed Neiteka Nicole Wesbey and Corey McMillan. He shot and wounded Larry Sanders and shot at Monique Hicks.

The next year he went on trial and a Richmond County jury convicted him of two murders, two counts of aggravated assault and four counts of possession of a firearm during commission of a crime. As the case moved into the sentencing phase, Moore entered into a plea deal that included a life without parole sentence and an agreement that he would not appeal. Moore was sentenced to life without parole plus 60 years.

Another who will be affected by the decision is Brandon Dekil Tarver, who was 17 when he shot and killed Toombs County convenience store owner William Westbrook. Tarver didn’t have a gun when he went into Westbrook’s country store but went there to get the one he knew the owner had. Tarver asked for an item on a wall beind the counter and when Westbrook turned to get it Tarver grabbed the .38 revolver stored under the counter.

They struggled, Tarver shot Westbrook in the chest and then shot him three times more in the head and chest.

Tarver couldn’t get the cash register open so he took the money from Westbrook’s wallet and escaped on a bicycle.

He was arrested months later after trying to pin the shooting on someone else.

Tarver was 17 when he committed his crime. He is now 30.

Reba said each defendant will appear in court, most of them rural, and the change in them from teenager to adult may make a difference to the judge.

Reba said when they are resentenced the judges will have the benefit of knowing how they have spent their years in prison, hopefully for good and “not as monsters.”