12 Texas Inmates Are Serving Banned Juvenile Life Sentence

A dozen Texas inmates are serving a sentence the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional because they were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes.

In early 2016, the court told states to retroactively apply its 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide. While many states have acted to resentence offenders to parole-eligible terms, Texas has left it to inmates to apply individually. If they succeed before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, their sentences will be set aside and new punishment hearings ordered, said Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark.

Attorney Mandy Miller is working on resentencing requests for three of the 12, including a now-27-year-old man convicted at 15 of capital murder in the beating and burning death of a 19-year-old man he and a handful of other teens robbed. The other nine have not yet requested resentencing.

State lawmakers in 2009 passed legislation banning life without parole for offenders 16 and younger and then, four years later, prohibited the sentence for 17-year-olds as well. The law now mandates a sentence of life with the opportunity for parole after 40 years for juveniles who commit certain crimes -- but some advocates say even that is too long.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition is championing legislation to give juvenile offenders an earlier shot at parole. The "Second Look" bill would make those inmates eligible for release after serving 20 years, and require the Board of Pardons and Paroles to consider the "growth and maturity of a youthful offender." The bill died in committee this year, but the group will try again next session.

The coalition said 2,100 inmates who committed crimes as teens would have qualified for parole sooner -- more than 1,600 in the next two years.

Larry Robinson's son is one.

Earlier this year, Robinson broke down in tears as he told a legislative committee all the things that weren't considered when his son Jason was sentenced to automatic life with the possibility of parole: nightmares about Larry's deployment during Operation Desert Storm, physical abuse from a relative, drug addiction, suicidal thoughts, and trips to three psychologists.

"The sentencing ... was the worst day. It's like the life just came out of me," Robinson said recently. "I just kept blaming myself, saying that it was my fault."

Jason Robinson was 16 when he and two other teens robbed the 19th Hole Pawn Shop in Killeen in 1994. They restrained clerk Troy Langseth and duct-taped his mouth before one teen stabbed him multiple times, including a blow that pierced his heart. The trio made off with 17 guns and the store's security videotape.

The younger Robinson, who turns 40 in January, talked about poor decisions that led him to that moment in an interview at the Alfred D. Hughes Unit in Gatesville. He remembered snorting lithium and said he went along the day of the robbery because his friends had marijuana.

Langseth was 24, lanky and tall, with curly brown hair and a beloved white Camaro. He was taking computer science college classes and wasn't supposed to work that morning.

"It doesn't seem real that you can make a decision that takes five minutes to make, and it can affect everyone's lives ... even 23 years later," Jason Robinson said. "I know sorry is not good enough. I wish things were different."

He also understands that he wants the very thing he stole from Langseth -- a chance at having a life. He's never had a driver's license, never been on a real date, never walked across a stage to graduate, although he's earned his GED and two college degrees while in prison.

"I live with knowing what happened and the consequences of our actions," he said, but "I feel like I'm running out of time."

Mark Langseth was 21 when his brother was killed and believes Robinson should serve out his term.

"When you are 16, or even 15, every person ... that walks the face of the planet understands that there are consequences," Langseth said. "Jason's actually lucky in a way that he at least gets to keep on living. My brother doesn't get that opportunity."

Some pushing for changes in Texas' juvenile sentencing laws say a life sentence even with the possibility of parole means inmates like Robinson may never be released. Attorney Elizabeth Henneke said data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice show that less than 5 percent of juveniles sentenced to life before 2013 have been paroled.

Henneke, who represents Robinson, recently formed the Lone Star Justice Alliance, a nonprofit that will contest trying juveniles in adult court and sentencing them to long prison terms, and wants to address underlying issues that lead to juvenile crime.

Murff Bledsoe tried Robinson's case. Now an adjunct faculty member at The University of Texas at Austin School of Law, he sees validity in arguments that juveniles lack the same maturity and brain development as adults, potentially leading to reckless acts. He said he could support a bill changing the law -- but for future offenders, not those already serving time.

"I think that in a case like this, where this family has suffered the ultimate of losing a loved one under terrible circumstances, to then go back and take away from them the certainty of what they were told, I don't agree with that," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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