DETROIT - From inside his prison cell, for the first time in 50 years, 67-year-old John Hall can almost taste freedom.
The bald and graying defendant has been in prison since he was 17, when he received a life sentence for his role in a back-alley killing in Detroit that claimed the life of a 63-year-old man. Parole was not an option.
But on Friday, four years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life sentences for juveniles, a judge gave Hall a potential second chance at life in re-sentencing him to 40-60 years in prison. That makes Hall eligible for parole in six months — a possibility that hundreds of other Michigan inmates continue to wait for in the wake of the high court's ruling, which gave them a shot at proving themselves worthy of redemption.
"It's momentous. Everyone in the courtroom was touched. I think it was shocking for people to see how old and frail he is," said Hall's lawyer, Valerie Newman, an attorney with the Michigan State Appellate Defender’s Office.
Hall was not present in the courtroom for the sentencing, but rather appeared in a live video feed from the prison he has lived at for five decades.
"He just kept saying how appreciative he was of the opportunity to become a productive member of society again," said Newman, who explained to Hall after the hearing that she is working on getting him home soon. Hall grew up in Detroit during the 1950s and '60s and has a sister he keeps in touch with.
"He broke down crying when I told him," said Newman.
She believes Hall's case offers a crucial message to the criminal justice system and society as a whole:
"Nobody is irredeemable," Newman said.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy did not object to Hall's new sentence.
"In this case, the defendant is 67 years old now, and has served 49 years in prison," Worthy said in a statement. "The most he can serve is 40 to 60 years, which he received today at his re-sentencing hearing."
Worthy didn't get into specifics about Hall, but said she is committed to complying with the Supreme Court's order to give juvenile lifers a shot at proving rehabilitation with a shot at re-entering society.
"It’s important that we get the ball rolling," Worthy said.Hall is among 363 Michiganders serving mandatory life terms for crimes they committed when they were teens — the second highest number of juvenile lifers nationwide. Legal experts say it's partly because Michigan sentences children as young as 14. Elsewhere, 38 states have abolished juvenile life-without-parole sentences, or have fewer than five people serving that sentence.
Hall was convicted in a 1967 fatal beating in a Detroit alley. His lawyers have argued there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime and that an alibi placed him elsewhere at the time of the crime. He was convicted after his first trial ended with a hung jury and has been in prison ever since.
In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed such sentences, concluding they must be limited to that "rare juvenile offender" who is incapable of reform. The high court also ruled that those who had already been sentenced to life as juveniles must have their cases reviewed and be given an opportunity for release if they can prove rehabilitation. Judges now have discretion and can consider an offender's childhood, education and numerous other factors, though it has taken years for Michigan's juvenile lifers to get new sentencing hearings.
Hall is among the first, and he may be among the few, to get a shot at redemption if the recent requests by prosecutors are any indication.
In recent weeks, more than a dozen prosecutors across the state have asked the court to re-impose life without parole sentences on the vast majority of inmates. Out of 334 juvenile lifers, prosecutors want to keep 218 of them locked up for good.
In Wayne County, Worthy has said she is willing to seek lower sentences for 81 juvenile lifers, but that she still plans to push for no-parole sentences again for at least 60 prisoners who were convicted of murder as teens. Some lifers, she said, should serve at least 40 years.
"I tried many of these cases myself. I remember the families," Worthy told Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson in August. "And it was very difficult to get around the horrendousness of some of these crimes."
Although Worthy believes some juvenile lifers should get a shot at parole, other prosecutors aren't willing to bend at all.
Saginaw County Prosecutor John McColgan Jr. wants all 21 juvenile lifers in his county re-sentenced to exactly what they got the first go-around: life without the possibility of parole. So does Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith, who wants all of his county's 12 juvenile lifers to stay behind bars for good.
Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton is seeking life-without-parole sentences for 23 of his county’s 26 juvenile lifers. And Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper wants to prevent 44 of the county’s 49 juvenile lifers from ever getting out of prison, telling Dickerson that only a handful of those defendants have shown any potential for rehabilitation.
Cooper cited murders in which the victim or victims had been killed after careful planning by perpetrators who frequently took elaborate steps to conceal their crimes. Additionally, she said, in each of the 44 cases, her office had found evidence that the young defendants continued to deny responsibility, showed few signs of remorse and continued to act out behind bars.
Among those who Cooper wants to keep locked up forever are Cornelius Copeland and Barbara Hernandez. Both were 16 when they were convicted in separate murders.
Copeland acted alone, fatally shooting a Kentucky Fried Chicken manager who had fired him. Hernandez, who made her living as a prostitute, was convicted of luring a man to an abandoned house where her adult boyfriend stabbed him to death.
Copeland, now in his early 30s, has spent 16 years in prison. Hernandez, 42, has been inside for 26 years.
Meanwhile, advocates for juvenile lifers say they believe the courts need to offer defendants like Hernandez and Copeland a chance to prove that they've learned from their mistakes, have grown into responsible adults, and have a lot to offer society if given a second chance.
"Children are uniquely capable of growth and maturation and must be able to demonstrate their rehabilitation," three former federal prosecutors wrote in a recent memo urging Michigan prosecutors to reconsider offering parole to juvenile lifers.
The memo's authors are Michael Dettmer, past president of the State Bar of Michigan, and James Brady and Richard Rossman, both past presidents of the National Association of Former U.S. Attorneys.
"Too many prosecutors are focusing on the crime committed by a troubled adolescent without exercising the judgement to recognize whether the adult before them today has rehabilitated himself," the former federal prosecutors wrote. "The first responsibility of a prosecutor in criminal litigation is to see that in each case, justice is done. In failing to exercise a case-by-case review pursuant to the mandates of (the U.S. Supreme Court ruling) Michigan prosecutors not only fail our justice system, they fail all of us."
(© 2016 WZZM)