A ruling last week by the U.S. Supreme Court has confusing repercussions for a recent court decision in Lansing. The high court ruled that laws like Michigan’s that sometimes mandate life sentences for juveniles found guilty of serious crimes are unconstitutional.
In January, a jury found 15-year old Charles Lewis Junior of Lansing guilty of accomplice to murder, a felony. WKAR’ Mark Bashore spoke with Ingham County Judge George Economy to clarify how the ruling impacts Lewis’ sentence.
MARK BASHORE: Because of Charles Lewis’ age, Judge Economy had—and exercised--the option to send him to Maxey Boys Training facility until he turns 21. Then, the judge will consider the rest of Lewis’ sentence. Economy says that last week’s Supreme Court decision does not take away his authority to send the teen to prison for life.
JUDGE GEORGE ECONOMY: What people must understand is when an issue is brought before the Supreme Court of the United States, the Supreme Court is very good about saying “this and only this” question is before the court. In this case, whether or not mandatory life imprisonment was unconstitutional.
MARK BASHORE: But I want to be absolutely clear about your legal options regarding Charles Lewis’ case when he turns 21. You’re saying that you could still legally impose a life sentence because all the high court said was the life sentence is not mandatory. They did not rule that it has to be ruled out. That’s the heart of it, right?
ECONOMY: That is absolutely correct. I believe that there will be further follow-up cases on the issue of life imprisonment, mandatory or not mandatory. Are those life imprisonment cases for younger people ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ as the eighth amendment says? And so I don’t think you’ve seen the end of this issue before the U.S. Supreme Court.
BASHORE: Can you even begin to anticipate how you’ll address Charles Lewis’ re-sentencing in six years?
ECONOMY: No I can’t, because it really lies in the hands of Charles Lewis. I mean, I instructed him in court that I knew the difference between his hitting ‘bumps in the road’--as opposed to him hitting a ‘huge pothole’ that says ‘Look, Charles is not being rehabilitated, has not learned what he had to do to warrant the opportunity to, perhaps, to avoid a life imprisonment sentence.’
BASHORE: Getting back to the Supreme Court decision, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, commented that the ruling will make life sentences for juveniles “uncommon.” Do you agree?
ECONOMY: I do believe that it will change the way many judges look at mandatory imprisonment. I don’t think that it will change if the facts are there that life imprisonment is warranted.
BASHORE: Attorney General Bill Schuette made a statement last week reminding people that the victims of these crimes not be overlooked in the re-sentencing process. Do you expect the circumstances of the victims to be reviewed as part of these re-sentencing proceedings?
ECONOMY: I do. I think the victims need to be heard and a judge should listen to what the victims have to say about the possible sentencing, to a defendant.
BASHORE: So it becomes more than just a consideration of the defendant’s youth, life, circumstances. Basically you go back and stir the whole thing up again?
ECONOMY: That’s true. You have to look at the whole picture. I don’t think it’s fair to anyone to just take part of the picture and say ‘OK, based on just this, I will make a determination.’ I think that you have to look at all of the facts.
BASHORE: Another important issue. A state commission last week recommended a framework for strengthening Michigan’s indigent defense system, which apparently varies a lot in quality from county to county. What’s been your experience here in Ingham County regarding the quality of indigent defense? Is it clearly inadequate in your view? Or is it possible we serve these defendants better than the public might be led to believe?
ECONOMY: I think we have an excellent defense bar here. I’m sure (chuckles) if we asked them, they would all sit there and say ‘no, we could be paid more.’ And there’s probably a good reason to review that.
But I think Ingham County does a marvelous job. The judges all take the time to constantly evaluate the performance of attorneys on the court-appointed list, for criminal cases, and to determine whether they should be elevated to handle more serious cases. Or in some cases, they’re dropped completely because of the inadequacy of the work they have been doing.