At 16, Eric Gray did not have any stable adults in his life. Instead, he was exposed daily to trauma and violence on the streets of St. Louis – including active recruitment by the Bloods.
In March 2009, he got involved with an older woman, was in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up in a gang shootout. He lived but another man died, and Gray received a sentence of seven years for manslaughter and 25 years for armed criminal action. He is currently serving that time at the Crossroads Correction Center in Cameron, Mo.
On July 13, Gray was supposed to be considered for release by a panel of the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole. But after being interviewed by the panel for a short period of time, Gray received a single-page decision from the board stating he was denied parole. The unsigned decision, dated August 4, went on to state that Gray will not be considered for parole release again for another five years.
On Dec. 28, MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis filed a lawsuit alleging that the Missouri Department of Corrections’ parole system violated Gray’s constitutional rights and does so continually with youthful offenders. In the suit, Gray asks the Circuit Court of Cole County to declare unlawful the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole’s procedures and its decision to deny his release.
Citing a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the suit argues that inmates who were sentenced for crimes committed as children require special consideration by the state’s parole board.
“Because youth are categorically less culpable than adults who commit the same offenses, they must be given a meaningful opportunity for release that focuses on their lack of maturity at the time of the crime, extreme vulnerability to peer pressure, and still developing moral compasses at the time they enter the justice system,” said Mae Quinn, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, a public interest law firm that advocates for human rights and social justice through litigation.
By depriving juvenile offenders of youth-focused assessments, the lawsuit argues that the department’s parole proceedings violate due process requirements and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.
A department spokesman told The St. Louis American that the department does not comment on pending litigation.
Before the incident, Gray “found himself involved in an inappropriate relationship with an older predatory woman named Sonia Whitlock,” according to a lawsuit.
Whitlock – who was in her twenties at the time – became pregnant with Gray’s child, but she was also involved with men from the opposing gang, the Crips. On March 20, 2009, Whitlock took Gray to her grandmother’s home in St. Louis city. Whitlock walked Gray down a nearby street where he was confronted by men Whitlock knew from her neighborhood, including Crip gang member Alvin Williams. Words were exchanged, gunfire rang out, and ultimately Williams was shot. Gray and Whitlock ran from the scene together; Williams died that day.
Gray was, thereafter, arrested and charged with causing Williams’ death. Despite his youth, vulnerability and status as a child statutory rape victim, Gray stood trial as an adult. After hearing about the circumstances from Whitlock, the jury acquitted Gray of first-degree-murder. He was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, for recklessly causing Williams’ death and one count of armed criminal action.
The lawsuit alleges that the parole made several procedural flaws regarding Gray’s parole hearing in July. Prior to the hearing, Gray was only allowed to name one person as his representative; therefore he couldn’t name a witness and an attorney. Gray wasn’t granted due process because he was not allowed to review the documents – including any letters from the victim’s family, notes from prison staff and risk assessment instruments – that went before the parole board. These practices are unconstitutional, the lawsuit argues.
“A one-sided, 15- or 20-minute, interrogation by board members and prison staff without any real consideration of modern brain science, adolescent development, or the impact of youthful traumas on child defendants does not amount to a real chance at a second chance,” Quinn said.
Quinn said the Missouri parole board’s practices have long gone without challenge or scrutiny. Oftentimes, people like Gray don’t have access to a public defender because the public defender’s office does not have the resources to provide someone to represent them during parole proceedings, she said.
“Unfortunately, unlike other states where attorneys are involved to ensure proceedings are fair, Missouri fails to provide the public defender system with sufficient funds to cover parole release or violation hearings,” Quinn said. “Because problematic practices well-known to Missouri policymakers have gone largely unchecked for decades, we feel the need to serve as a watchdog on these issues.”
This is the third lawsuit filed by the MacArthur Center in the last two months, taking aim at Missouri’s prisons. The most recent prior complaint, a class action filed in federal court in collaboration with the ACLU, seeks to force the department to provide appropriate treatment to inmates suffering from Hepatitis C. That case potentially impacts thousands of Missouri prisoners.
“The MDOC system is broken,” said Amy Breihan, the MacArthur staff attorney spearheading the group’s efforts to fight for meaningful hepatitis treatment. “We see this in news reports about how it treats its own employees. And we see it in how the department treats (or doesn't treat) those in its care. Our lawsuits reflect the need for a fundamental cultural shift.”
Quinn noted that the current director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, George Lombardi, tendered his resignation this month.
“That followed the center’s two prior court filings and other emerging legal controversies involving the department, including accounts of a hostile and sometimes violent work environment where whistleblowers who call for change face retaliation,” she said.
In August, the national Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center opened an office in St. Louis. Quinn, most recently the director of the Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic and a tenured professor at Washington University School of Law, was named director of the new office.
Since its 1985 founding in Chicago by the family of J. Roderick MacArthur, the MacArthur Justice Center has worked to bring police misconduct to the public’s attention and helped wrongfully convicted men and women win multimillion dollar verdicts and settlements as compensation for the time they were imprisoned.
“This region has recently received national and international attention – and scorn – because of problematic court, incarceration, and policing practices, including the shooting death of unarmed Michael Brown by Ferguson law enforcement,” said Locke E. Bowman, Executive Director of the MacArthur Justice Center, which is based at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago. “St. Louis was an obvious choice for our newest initiative.”