Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Thin Line Between Life and Death

by Donna Pendergast

It's been more than 20 years since Joseph Passeno (left) and Bruce (Christopher) Michaels (below right) stunned the suburban Detroit community of Rochester Hills with a gruesome crime that defied comprehension and shocked the public.

After finishing dinner at home on Nov. 9, 1989, Wanda Tarr, 58, was headed out in her Chevrolet Cavalier to meet an insurance client when she was forced out of the car at gunpoint by Passeno, then 17, and Michaels, then 16. They took her to Hawthorne Park in nearby Pontiac, where they robbed her and shot her to death. Passeno and Michaels then used her personal identification to find her home, where they told her husband, Glenn Tarr, that they had abducted his wife. The pair then abducted Tarr and forced him to withdraw money from an ATM. Then they took him to Hawthorne park and murdered him next to his wife's body by shooting Tarr six times.

Passeno and Michaels were arrested shortly after their crimes, when they bragged about their thrill kill to schoolmates. They were found guilty of first-degree murder and multiple other charges in a March 1990 jury trial. They were sentenced as adults to life in prison without parole.

After nearly two decades in separate Michigan prisons, Passeno and Michaels bear little resemblance to the fresh-faced teens they were when they went in. His entire face covered in tattoos, Passeno now looks like a mutant from a carnival midway. Michaels lost the baby face once so at odds with his horrific crimes.

Last week, two companion cases argued before the U.S. Supreme Court could have implications for the mandatory life sentences imposed on Passeno and Michaels. The court was asked to consider whether life sentences for juvenile defendants constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Eight Amendment.

The cases before the court involve two Florida residents, Terrance Graham and Joseph Sullivan. Graham, now 22, was 16 when he robbed a restaurant at gunpoint. After serving a year behind bars, he violated the terms of his probation by committing another armed burglary, breaking into a man's house and robbing him at gunpoint. Sullivan was 13 in 1989 when he sexually assaulted a 72-year-old woman in her home during a burglary. It was the eighteenth crime committed by Sullivan, who is mentally disabled, during just two years. Both defendants were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Arguing before the court, petitioners in the current case cited the 2005 Supreme Court ruling in Roper v. Simmons, which banned executing people who commit capital murder before they reach the age of 18, on Eighth Amendment grounds. Lawyers argued that the logic of that ruling should be extended to life sentences, the equivalent of a slow death in prison for an adolescent. As in the Roper case, lawyers highlighted adolescents' limited cognitive capacities to assess and manage impulses because their pre-frontal cortex, which controls them and recognizes consequences, isn't fully developed.

The court could rule in a number of ways. One key point in the pending cases: neither defendant had committed a homicide. The court's opinion could differentiate between juvenile offenders who kill and those who commit lesser crimes. It also could uphold the two defendants' current sentences or set an age limit for when such punishment is inhumane. It could ban life without parole for all juvenile offenders, affecting thousands of cases like those of Michaels and Passeno.

Robust policy discussions have sprung up debating the potential for rehabilitation and reform of juvenile offenders after maturation of the brain. But what about the cold-blooded sociopath who kills with extraordinary brutality and without remorse? What about when the crime is so serious and vile that denying the offender freedom for the rest of his life is the most appropriate response? An antisocial predator who has spent years or decades in prison is extremely unlikely to be able to reintegrate into society. There is no proven treatment for antisocial personality disorders that will drive an inmate to rape or kill if released. Prisons serve not only to rehabilitate and punish but also to prevent those who are a threat to society from harming others.

As a prosecutor, I have seen the bad and the worst for well over two decades. Yet I'm reluctant to dismiss the possibility of reform. I'm more reluctant, though, to release someone who will create more victims if returned to society. Out of 100 murder trials I have prosecuted, only three involved 16-year old-defendants sentenced to life without parole. All three cases involved chronically violent youthful offenders who committed heinous acts beyond comprehension.

Charging a juvenile with an offense carrying the possibility of life without parole is a decision that should not be made lightly. But as a prosecutor, I want that tool in my arsenal.

Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views opinion or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.

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