12 ju­ve­nile crim­i­nals in Texas serv­ing banned life sen­tences

State re­quires in­mates to ap­ply in­di­vid­u­ally for re­sen­tenc­ing.

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Clau­dia Lauer and Jaime Du­n­away

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, Depart­ment of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice spokesman Ja­son Clark said.

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 few 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 col­lege cour­ses in com­puter sci­ence 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 and never walked across a stage to grad­u­ate, al­though he has 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,” he 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 fewer 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.

JAIME DU­N­AWAY / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ja­son Robin­son was con­victed of mur­der at age 16 and re­ceived a manda­tory sen­tence of life with­out pa­role. Robin­son, now 39, is an in­mate at the state prison in Gatesville.

JAIME DU­N­AWAY / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Larry Robin­son holds a child­hood photo of his son Ja­son dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view at his home in Killeen. Robin­son says he blames him­self for his son’s role in a 1994 pawn shop rob­bery that re­sulted in the death of a clerk.

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