CHEYENNE — A bill to bring Wyoming law into compliance with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed mandatory life sentences for juvenile killers cleared its first hearing on Thursday.
The House Judiciary Committee endorsed a bill that would change Wyoming law so that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder would be eligible for parole after serving 25 years.
Existing Wyoming law leaves judges only a choice between sentencing juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to life, or life without the possibility of parole. The only way out of prison for someone serving a basic life sentence is for the governor to commute the sentence or grant a pardon.
Last year’s Supreme Court ruling left open the possibility that judges could still impose life sentences on juvenile killers as long as they also considered alternative sentences. However, the bill moving through the Wyoming Legislature goes farther. It would specify that all juveniles sentenced for first-degree murder would be eligible for consideration for parole after serving 25 years, although it doesn’t require that they actually be paroled.
Last year’s Supreme Court ruling came in an Alabama case. Shortly after that ruling, the court also vacated a life sentence imposed on Wyatt Bear Cloud of Wyoming. He was one of three teens sentenced to life in the 2009 home invasion killing of Sheridan businessman Robert Ernst.
Attorneys for Bear Cloud and Dharminder Vir Sen, the teenage triggerman in Ernst’s slaying, have asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to overturn their life sentences based on the ruling in the Alabama case. Justices of the Wyoming Supreme Court indicated at a recent hearing that they will watch to see how the Legislature addresses the issue.
Cheyenne District Attorney Scott Homar told the committee members on Thursday that a second-degree murder conviction in Wyoming carries a sentence of 20 years to life. Speaking for the Wyoming County and Prosecuting Attorneys Association, he said first-degree murder should carry substantially more punishment.
“As far as we’re concerned, that should still be on the table as far as sentencing purposes,” Homar said of juvenile sentences of life without parole.
Linda Burt, director of the ACLU in Wyoming, spoke in favor of the bill. She noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has said in a series of rulings that juvenile offenders shouldn’t be held to the same standard as adults.
Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He urged the House committee to keep the maximum sentence for juvenile killers before they’re eligible for parole at 25 years.
Burns said the Interim Joint Judiciary Committee was aware that the bill it endorsed could have offered a harsher punishment by leaving sentences of life without parole as an option as long as judges considered other alternatives. He said the committee decided against it, and made a policy decision to ban sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.
“We knew that, we were I think well briefed on that, and it was a policy decision by the interim committee to do that,” said Burns, who mentioned that Ernst had been a friend of his. “I agree with it, I voted for it, because I don’t think any of us would say we’re the same person at 42 that we were at 17.”