Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning requested a court order Tuesday that would let the state pardons board commute the sentences of prison inmates serving life for crimes they committed as juveniles.
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning requested a court order Tuesday that would let the state pardons board commute the sentences of prison inmates serving life for crimes they committed as juveniles.
The attorney general filed the motion after a Douglas County judge blocked the pardons board from holding hearings on 24 cases.
Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, who represents 14 of the inmates in a lawsuit, has said the pardons board wants to use the hearings to subvert the U.S. Supreme Court's June ruling that threw out mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles and commute the sentences to no less than 50 years each.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad took similar action in July, when he commuted the life-without-parole sentences of 38 convicted killers. Branstad's order made the inmates eligible for parole, but only after they had served 60 years in prison.
In the court filing, Riley argues that the Pardons Board - made up of Bruning, Gov. Dave Heineman and Secretary of State John Gale - does not have jurisdiction to commute the sentences, because most of the inmates have not applied for commutations. Only two of the prisoners potentially affected by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling have applied for commutation, and those two are in the process of withdrawing their applications, Riley said.
The lawsuit also argues that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling invalidates the prisoners' sentences, meaning the Pardons Board has no constitutionally valid sentences to commute.
Bruning's office released a statement Tuesday, but his spokeswoman did not answer several requests to speak with the attorney general. In the statement, Bruning said the pardons board has constitutional authority to make decisions on commuting sentences.
"These hearings are the most efficient way to ensure justice is served and the public is protected from dangerous offenders," he said.
On Monday, Heineman declined to comment about the cases, saying the matter was under litigation. He referred questions to the Bruning's office. A spokeswoman for the governor has said the Pardons Board was not planning to issue across-the-board commutations.
One of the inmates scheduled for commutation hearings is Darren McCracken, who was 13 when he shot his sleeping mother twice in the back of the head in the tiny, central Nebraska town of Smithfield. McCracken, now 33, was the youngest Nebraskan ever sentenced to life without parole.
Testimony at his trial revealed that he had been bullied, beaten and sexually abused by his brother for years, and that his divorced mother - a heavy drinker - had done little to stop it. Psychologists testified that McCracken likely was suffering from posttraumatic stress when he killed her.
Jason Golka, 26, was also scheduled for a hearing. Golka was two weeks shy of his 18th birthday when he shot and killed Jay Ellis, 41, and Roscoe Jordan, 38, at a house in Gretna in October 2004. Prosecutors say the killings were likely payback for the men, who had attacked Golka two weeks earlier. Police say the pair struck Golka in the head, sprayed his hat and face with paint and burned his forearm. Golka is serving life without parole.
Advocates for the inmates and their families said they're now focusing on whether lawmakers will address the issue when they convene in January.
Sarah Forrest, policy coordinator of Voices for Children Nebraska, said she expects Bruning's office to introduce legislation that would establish new sentencing rules. She said she's concerned that proposals would violate the spirit of the Supreme Court's ruling.
"Our primary focus is whether the ways we sentence youths are just," Forrest said. "Do they take into account all these different, unique things about youths that the Supreme Court has recognized?"
She said news of the commutation hearings, followed by their sudden cancellation, have left many inmates' families confused about the status of their cases.
"I think there's a lot of uncertainty," Forrest said.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)