After spending decades in prison for a pool hall slaying that occurred when he was 17, a judge on Friday told David A. Samel he's been locked up long enough, giving the convicted killer a chance for freedom.
“The idea of being confined for life without the possibility of parole when one is only 17 years of age is indeed a terrible prospect and it’s hard to imagine much being worse than that,’’ Kent County Circuit Court Judge Donald A. Johnston said.
“I think perhaps Mr. Samel has been confined long enough, given the totality of circumstances.’’
With that, Johnston sentenced Samel, now 52, to serve between 34-½ to 60 years in prison for the Oct. 1981 murder at Golden 8 Ball on South Division Avenue south of Burton Street.
Samel’s twin brother Michael pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for his role in the slaying and is already out of prison.
Because David Samel has been locked up for nearly 35 years, he is eligible for parole. It will be up to the Michigan Parole Board to determine when he is released.
Samel is one of 24 people in Kent County sentenced to mandatory life in prison for murders they committed as juveniles.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that mandatory life terms for juvenile offenders was unconstitutional, triggering resentencing hearings for more than 360 juvenile lifers held in Michigan prisons.
Instead of mandatory life, teen killers now face a minimum sentence of between 25 and 40 years and a maximum term of not less than 60 years.
Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth intends to block the release of 13 of the 24 convicted killers. But those cases are on hold pending a decision by Michigan Supreme Court on how they should be sentenced.
In the remaining cases, including five set for hearings next week, Forsyth said he will not stand in the way of them getting out once they've served at least 25 years.
Friday’s hearing in Johnston’s 11th floor court room was emotional, to be sure. The sister of slaying victim Robert D. Sallon asked the judge to show mercy. David Samel openly wept during parts of the hearing.
“Even though this was a horrific crime against our family, which is still painful, I would like to see David get out and get the opportunity to be a better person,’’ Tammi Baker told the court.
“So I just would really ask for mercy from the court that he get released and that he can move forward with this,’’ she said.
Johnston called her willingness to forgive and advocate for the convicted killer “extraordinary.’’
Samel tearfully thanked Baker for her forgiveness and compassion.
“I feel that I am worth a second chance,’’ he said. “I’d like the court to know that I’m not that broken teenager anymore.’’
He and his twin brother confronted Sallon, 18, in the basement of the pool hall after it had closed for the night. He was strangled and beaten in the head with a hammer. The robbery netted the twins $50, a compound bow and three arrows.
Michael Samel pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to between 35 and 55 years in prison. He got out in 2009.
David Samel opted to take his chances at trial. A judge found him guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life without parole.
While in prison, Samel has taken vocational classes and worked to improve himself. That was not lost on the judge.
He noted that Samel’s prison record, while not “squeaky clean,’’ is “pretty close to it.’’
“Mr. Samel has worked hard to educate himself and improve himself and develop life skills and employable skills at a time when he really had no hope of ever getting out of prison,’’ Johnston said.
“So I think Mr. Samel has made good use of his time and has demonstrated a capacity for a law-abiding and fulfilling career on the outside of the prison walls when that opportunity comes his way,’’ the judge said.