Courts still face questions on life for juveniles

Published 7:22 pm Monday, January 28, 2019

One man sentenced to life in prison without parole as a juvenile will get a shot at a new sentence, but larger changes to how Mississippi courts are handling such cases appear unlikely for now.

That’s the upshot of two recent court decisions, as legal fights continue after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that juveniles can’t automatically be sentenced to life without parole. The nation’s high court later ordered all juvenile offenders held without possibility of parole to be resentenced, including 87 Mississippi inmates.

The Supreme Court ruled that such lifetime sentences should be “rare,” and that only juvenile offenders who show no chance of rehabilitation should be locked up forever. Of 44 Mississippi offenders resentenced as of August, according to the Office of the State Public Defender, 13 had been resentenced to life without parole.

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One of those was Stephen McGilberry, who was convicted in 1996 of four counts of capital murder for the baseball bat beating deaths of his mother, stepfather, half-sister and his half-sister’s son. A 14-year-old accomplice helped.

Jackson County Circuit Judge Robert Krebs in 2017 resentenced McGilberry to life without parole, saying McGilberry had expressed no remorse, had masterminded the plot and had a history of rules violations in prison. McGilberry is one of five people resentenced to life without parole in Jackson County, a hot spot for such sentences. One man was given the possibility of parole, while a seventh resentencing is still pending.

McGilberry was originally sentenced to death, but was resentenced to life without parole after the U.S. Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional for those under 18.

Now 40, McGilberry is imprisoned at Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, where relatives of victims have said they want him to stay. The Mississippi Court of Appeals, though, voted 7-0 earlier this month to send McGilberry back for a sentencing hearing before a jury to decide whether he should be sentenced to life with possibility or without possibility of parole. This will be his fourth sentencing.

Both the McGilberry case and a 2018 ruling hinge on whether the defendant was convicted by a jury instead of pleading guilty before a judge. In the earlier case involving Darren Lee Wharton, convicted of capital murder in a 1994 convenience store robbery in Harrison County, the court decided that a defendant convicted by a jury should be resentenced by a jury.

This is a small universe of defendants, and Attorney General Jim Hood’s office is asking the Mississippi Supreme Court to rehear the Wharton case. More importantly, state courts continue to reject arguments that they’re not following U.S. Supreme Court rulings correctly. Mississippi doesn’t require formal findings about a person’s ability to be rehabilitated, and defense lawyers say that violates standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That was the main issue that Joey Chandler, convicted of murder for shooting his cousin to death outside a Clay County nightclub in 2003, wanted the U.S. Supreme Court to hear. The justices declined on Jan. 7 to take the appeal.

“It’s my position that that’s irreconcilable with the Supreme Court’s holding … that only permanently incorrigible juveniles can be sentenced to life without parole,” said Jacob Howard, a lawyer for the MacArthur Justice Center who represents Chandler.

Howard applauds the McGilberry ruling but says it won’t help many defendants who may have pleaded guilty to capital murder, which carried a mandatory life without parole sentence for juveniles after the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for them.

“They got the interpretation of the state statute correct, but they’re still failing to enforce federal law,” Howard said.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him at .