LINCOLN — The U.S. Supreme Court has cleared the way for more than two dozen men convicted of murder as juveniles in Nebraska to be resentenced.
On Monday, the high court let stand a February ruling by the Nebraska Supreme Court that three Omaha men were unconstitutionally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for slayings the men committed when they were younger than 18 years of age.
The State Supreme Court had ordered that all three be given new sentences while upholding their murder convictions.
The rulings all stem from a 2012 finding by the U.S. Supreme Court that automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional. In Alabama v. Miller, the court said that states had failed to consider the “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform” of youthful killers in sentencing them.
Nebraska was one of at least seven states in which courts decided that the Miller ruling applied retroactively.
The state has at least 27 men who received life sentences for murders committed when they were juveniles. Some of the so-called “kid killers” were convicted 30 to 40 years ago.
The resentencing hearings will be “unchartered territory” by almost every measure, according to Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, whose office represents 14 of the men. There will be testimony about the development of a teen’s brain, the convicts’ crimes, their state of mind years ago, as well as their behavior since then, he said.
“It’s a very daunting task. But I’ve promised the families of these defendants that I’m going to do all I can to make sure they get a fair hearing,” Riley said.
The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the February ruling, and seven other states, led by Michigan, joined in that request.
But on Monday, without comment, the high court denied the request for review, thus letting the ruling by the state court stand.
A request for comment from the Attorney General’s Office was not immediately answered. However, after the state court ruling in February, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office expressed confidence that the sentencing courts will ensure that the men face “tough penalties that reflect the seriousness of their crimes.”
Omaha defense attorney Adam Sipple said he was pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the brief he filed that this was an issue of state law and not one that required federal court intervention.
He said he expects to get a resentencing hearing for his client, Douglas Mantich, by the end of the year. Mantich was 17 when he was convicted in the deadly carjacking of Henry “Hank” Thompson of Omaha in December 1993.
Under a Nebraska law passed in reaction to the Miller case in 2013, judges must consider prison sentences ranging from 40 years to life for the men. Before that, state law required juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to be sentenced automatically to life without parole.
The jury found Mantich guilty of first-degree murder after determining that he participated in the abduction and restraint of Thompson. Nebraska law provides that people who participate in a crime that results in murder can be found guilty of murder along with the killer.
Sipple said that because his client, now 37, was not convicted of being the shooter in the killing, he will argue that a life sentence is not warranted. He cited the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Florida that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses.
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