High court hears challenge to mandatory life for young adults

High court hears challenge to mandatory life for young adults

By SARAH MANSUR
Capitol News Illinois
smansur@capitolnewsillinois.com

SPRINGFIELD — A man who was found guilty for acting as the lookout in a double homicide nearly three decades ago is asking the Illinois Supreme Court to find his mandatory life sentence without parole unconstitutional.

A lawyer for Antonio House argued before Supreme Court Tuesday that his life sentence for a crime committed when he was 19 violates the so-called proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution.

This clause in the constitution states: “All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.”

Lauren A. Bauser, an assistant appellate defender who represents House, said the court should allow House to be resentenced because “the record in this case demonstrates that Antonio’s mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for a crime he committed as a teenager, as a teenage lookout, who wasn’t present at the time of the killing, shocks the conscience.”

House was a member of the Unknown Vice Lords street gang at the time of the September 1993 murders of Stanton Burch and Michael Purham in Chicago.

The killings were related to a gang conflict after Burch and Purham, who were members of a rival gang, took over a street corner for drug sales that previously was Unknown Vice Lords’ territory.

House was arrested in October 1993 for participating in the armed kidnapping of Burch and Purham, and acting as lookout when the men were fatally shot.

A jury found House guilty of two counts of first degree murder and two counts of aggravated kidnapping. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, followed by 60 years in prison.

Under Illinois law at the time, a conviction for murdering more than one person carried a mandatory life sentence without parole.

Since his conviction and sentencing, House has appealed his case, focusing on two primary claims.

First, he makes an innocence claim based on the fact that a key witness who testified she saw House kidnap Burch and Putnam has now recanted that testimony. This recanted testimony entitles him to a hearing on his claim of innocence, he argues.

Second, House argues that recent U.S. Supreme Court cases demonstrate a consensus against the imposition of mandatory life sentences for juveniles. In addition, he argues that scientific advances in brain research indicate that evolving societal standards relating to juvenile sentences should also apply equally to older teenagers like 19-year-old House.

On appeal, House’s innocence claim was dismissed by the 1st District Appellate Court, which is one level below the Illinois Supreme Court.

However, the appellate court agreed with his argument that his mandatory life sentence without parole violated the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution, and it vacated his conviction.

“Given (House’s) age, his family background, his actions as a lookout as opposed to being the actual shooter, and lack of any prior violent convictions, we find that (House’s) mandatory sentence of natural life shocks the moral sense of the community,” the appellate court’s 2015 opinion states.

“Our conclusion is not meant to diminish in any way of the seriousness of the crimes, specifically two convictions for murder and two convictions for aggravated kidnapping. We recognize (House) remains culpable for his participation. However, we believe that (House) is entitled to a new sentencing hearing in which the trial court has the ability to consider the relevant mitigating factors prior to imposing a sentence of such magnitude.”

The state appealed this decision to the Illinois Supreme Court, which accepted the case. In November 2018, the state Supreme Court issued a supervisory order that directed the 1st District Appellate Court to reconsider its decision vacating House’s sentence, in light of a different 2018 case, People v. Harris, on which the high court ruled.

In People v. Harris, Darien Harris appealed his mandatory 76-year sentence for first-degree murder as unconstitutional because he was 18 years old at the time he committed the murder.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Harris’ sentence did not violate the Illinois Constitution or the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.

In reaching its decision in that case, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that, “for sentencing purposes, the age of 18 marks the present line between juveniles and adults.”

The court concluded that, “As an 18-year-old, (Harris) falls on the adult side of that line.”

In 2019, after reconsidering in light of People v. Harris, the 1st District Appellate Court reached the same decision to vacate House’s sentence.

The state appealed the 1st District’s decision for a second time. The Illinois Supreme Court accepted the case, and it heard oral arguments on Tuesday.

During oral arguments, Chief Justice Anne Burke asked the state’s attorney, Assistant Attorney General Gopi Kashyap, about House’s role in the murders.

“Isn’t the real concern here that (House) received a mandatory life sentence and he really just acted as a lookout?” Burke asked.

Gopi said House was not simply a lookout.

“He participated from the onset. This was a planned offense, it was a kidnapping and murder plot. It was not just his actions during the murder itself,” Gopi said.

Both Gopi and Bauser discussed the Illinois Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in People v. Leon Miller, in which the court decided that a mandatory life sentence was unconstitutional when imposed on Leon Miller, who was convicted of two murders and was 15 years old at the time of the offense. Miller was found guilty for acting as a lookout while the murders took place.

Gopi argued that House’s case cannot be compared to Miller’s because Miller was a juvenile at the time of the murders. Miller was also unarmed at the time, while House was carrying a weapon, Gopi said.

But Bauser said the Illinois Supreme Court should use its decision in People v. Miller to guide its decision in House’s case because the court found that a lengthy sentence can violate the proportionate penalties clause, depending on the individual accountability and rehabilitative potential of a particular offender.

Bauser also argued that U.S Supreme Court decisions in Roper v. Simmons (2005), Graham v. Florida (2010), and Miller v. Alabama (2012), which all involved juvenile offenders, require a sentencing court to consider the inherent qualities of youth when sentencing a juvenile in adult court.

In the Graham and Miller cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a life sentence without parole imposed on a juvenile offender violates Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. In Roper, the court ruled that a death sentence imposed on a juvenile violates the Eighth Amendment.

In these cases, the U.S. Supreme Court emphasized the importance of considering a juvenile’s incomplete brain development and rehabilitative potential before imposing a criminal sentence that is a de facto or near life prison term.

But the U.S. Supreme Court backtracked in Jones v. Mississippi, a case involving a 15-year-old convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole.

The court’s decision in April 2021 ruled that a sentencing court does not have to find a juvenile is incapable of being rehabilitated before sentencing him or her to life without parole.

The Illinois General Assembly passed a law in 2019, the Youthful Parole Bill, that allows certain offenders under age 21 to be eligible for parole after 10 years. It also allows certain individuals convicted of murder to be eligible for parole after 20 years.

However, the law does not apply retroactively. It also does not apply to individuals convicted of murdering more than one person, as House is.

Lieutenant LaSheda Brooks, a judge advocate for the U.S. Navy and one of House’s daughters, authored a letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times last week, advocating for the Illinois Supreme Court to rule in her father’s favor.

Brooks notes that her father’s case is the first Illinois youthful sentencing case before the state’s Supreme Court since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Jones v. Mississippi.

“Like my father, Illinois’ sentencing laws for youth have matured. We no longer mandatorily banish people younger than 18 to life in prison without parole,” Brooks wrote. “But Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is asking our state’s Supreme Court to overturn the ruling and uphold my dad’s mandatory life sentence. Attorney General Raoul is fighting to keep my father locked away forever. That is not fairness. That is not what Illinois should stand for.”

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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