Bobby Bostic

Twenty-six former judges and prosecutors on January 25 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in the case of an African-American St. Louis man who was sentenced to die in prison when he was 16.

Bobby Bostic 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. Though only 16, 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 reverse the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court, which upheld Bostic’s sentence.

The group submitted an amicus curiae in support of Bostic and includes two former U.S. solicitors general, a former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and two state attorneys general.

The judge who issued Bostic’s sentence made it clear that he would “die in the department of corrections” because “nobody in this room is going to be alive” when he becomes eligible for parole.

In the amicus brief, the judges and prosecutors argue that Bostic is a prime example of the reasoning behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Graham v. Florida in 2010. Graham held that sentences of life without possibility of parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders violate the Eighth Amendment. States must provide a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” the case concluded.

“Mr. Bostic’s case exemplifies the bases for requiring that juveniles be given a meaningful opportunity to obtain release,” said Jennifer Merrigan, an attorney at the nonprofit, public-interest law practice The Phillips Black Project and counsel for the amici.

It’s been 21 years since Bostic’s crime, and he has been a model prisoner, Merrigan said. He has completed numerous institutional programs focused on rehabilitation and restorative justice. He has sought out countless educational opportunities, obtaining his high school equivalency test in 1998, a paralegal diploma in 2010, and completing college courses in victim advocacy and business studies. 

“Despite this substantial and significant growth, maturity and rehabilitation, under Missouri law, Mr. Bostic will forever be denied the opportunity to demonstrate that ‘the bad acts he committed as a teenager are not representative of his true character,’” the group stated in the amicus brief, quoting from the Graham case. “States should not be permitted to circumvent Graham’s mandate in this fashion.”

The vast majority of states that have addressed the issue have held that Graham applies to aggregate term-of-years sentences that exceed a young offender’s lifespan. Missouri has recently joined the small minority of states that refuses to apply Graham to cases like these, reasoning that Graham prohibits sentences formally labeled life without parole imposed for a single offense, not a term-of-years sentence imposed for multiple offenses.

“A small group of outlier jurisdictions are overwhelmingly responsible for the imposition of juvenile life without parole sentences,” said attorney John Mills, citing prior research by Phillips Black. “We hope the court’s review will return the rule of law to cases like Mr. Bostic’s. Rank formalism, where the constitutionality of a sentence turns on its label instead of its effect, cannot stand.”

The brief also argues that states including Missouri have been permitted to circumvent Graham in another important way: by punishing juvenile offenders more harshly because of their youth.

Bostic was charged as an accomplice in the robberies, and witnesses testified that then-18-year-old Donald Hutson was the primary actor. Upon arrest, Bostic immediately gave a confession, while Hutson refused to cooperate and received a 30-year sentence. At sentencing, Bostic caved to peer pressure, listening to the other juveniles who convinced him not to take a plea, according to the brief.

The judge told him at the sentencing, “I saw your lawyer and people from his office trying to talk to you, and you dismissed them because you knew more than these trained legal minds because of your brilliant friends in the workhouse who wouldn't be there if they were so smart.”

The brief argues that the judge acknowledged his limited maturity and insight.

Quoting the judge, the brief states, “The judge again turned one of the reasons to provide juveniles with protection into a reason to punish him: ‘Before I go through this, I hope this will be a message to the other young men and women out there. Listen to your families or your lawyers, otherwise you will face the consequences of your actions.’”

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