U.S. Supreme Court accepts ACLU brief on juvenile case

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When Bobby Bostic was 16, he and a friend committed a pair of armed robberies in St. Louis just before Christmas in 1995. Two people were shot at but not harmed.

Bostic was tried as an adult and sentenced to 241 years in prison. He is up for parole in 2091, when he would be 112 years old.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take on Bostic’s case and reject his sentence as unconstitutional.

“Bobby Bostic should get a chance to show that crimes he committed as a teen do not define him,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “The Constitution demands nothing less.”

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida that the Eighth Amendment “prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide.”

The decision requires that the state provide a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” The court based the ruling in part on the growing scientific recognition that the brains of children under 18 remain undeveloped, including the parts needed for behavioral control.

“Missouri should not, by manipulating sentence structures and charges, be permitted to avoid this Court’s clear limitation on sending juvenile non-homicide offenders to die in prison,” the ACLU stated in its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court filed last week.

On December 12, 1995, Bostic and then 18-year-old Donald Hutson robbed a group of six people at gunpoint while they were delivering Christmas gifts to a needy family in St. Louis, according to the ACLU’s petition. During the robbery, two people were shot at. One received a tetanus shot because the gunshot grazed his skin. The other testified that he was shot at but not injured at all.

After the robbery, Bostic and Hutson forced a woman into her car and drove off. After driving around with her in the car, they robbed her and then, at Bostic’s insistence, let her go, the petition states. In the process of robbing the woman, Hutson, who was also the person demanding money from her, put his hands down her pants, in her bra and in her boots to search for money.

The woman testified that she feared Hutson was going to rape her, but that Bostic prevented Hutson from doing so, the petition states.

After letting the woman go, Bostic and Hutson threw their guns in the river and used the money to buy marijuana. Bostic was pulled over by the police and ultimately charged with 18 counts.

The trial judge gave Bostic a demeaning speech during his sentencing hearing, calling him a “fool” for not pleading guilty and “poor little Bobby.” Then she issued him the equivalent of a life sentence without parole.

“You’re gonna have to live with your choice, and you’re gonna die with your choice because, Bobby Bostic, you will die in the Department of Corrections,” Circuit Judge Evelyn Baker said.

“Do you understand that? Your mandatory date to go in front of the parole board will be the year 2201. Nobody in this room is going to be alive in the year 2201.”

Judge Baker did exactly what the federal court forbids, the ACLU argues.

“Indeed, the Circuit Judge specifically used Mr. Bostic’s immaturity – in particular, his unwillingness to listen to adults urging him to take a plea deal and his inability to take responsibility for his actions – as a reason why he should die in prison,” the petition states.

After Bostic’s trial, Hutson pleaded guilty to all counts of robbery, attempted robbery, assault and kidnapping. He will be eligible for parole next year.

“The Missouri Supreme Court believes the ruling only applies when a state uses the magic words ‘life without parole,’” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director, ACLU of Missouri. “We believe otherwise. Not only is this sentence unconstitutional, it is reprehensible.”

Promising state legislation

While the ACLU aims to set a precedent for Missouri with Bostic’s case, the state legislature is also showing a renewed interest in keeping children from being tried in adult courts.

Right now, Missouri is one of only seven states that excludes all 17-year-olds from the juvenile justice system. State Rep. Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon) has pre-filed his “Raise the Age” legislation to change that.

Under his bill, 17-year-olds will no longer be automatically charged, jailed, and imprisoned as adults the day they turn 17, even for the most minor offenses.

The ACLU “strongly supports” Schroer’s legislation, and it has bipartisan support. Several attempts to pass such legislation in the past have stalled.

Raising the age will not prevent 17-year-olds accused of serious offenses from being prosecuted as adults. However, about 93 percent of 17-year-olds arrested in Missouri in 2015 were accused of nonviolent or misdemeanor offenses.

Schroer said, “Our juvenile justice system is better at holding kids accountable and getting them on the right track.”

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