DENVER — The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in cases that will determine the fate of 50 people who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were children.
In 1993, known in Denver as the "Summer of Violence," lawmakers gave district attorneys more leeway in charging juveniles as adults, leading to more mandatory life sentences for minors, with parole considered only after 40 years in prison. When the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for those under 18 are unconstitutional, lawmakers pulled back that power and let judges decide whether a life sentence is appropriate.
Defense attorneys for three juvenile offenders presented arguments for legal mechanisms that would allow a judge to shave decades off of prison terms. The Colorado Attorney General's office argued that past offenders should serve 40 years in prison before being considered for release on parole.
"I think the Legislature never intended for juveniles to suffer the harshest penalty," Eric Samler, attorney for Tenarro Banks, argued before the seven justices.
Banks was convicted of shooting and killing Byris Williams, 16, in December 2004. Banks was 15 at the time of the shooting.
Darryl Williams, Byris' father, said outside the hearing that his son was attending a party for a friend from middle school and wore a sports jersey that had red on it. Banks, who prosecutors said is a member of the Tre Tre Crips, confronted Williams and shot him. Williams said he has forgiven Banks and that he disagrees with the state's position that juveniles serve a minimum of 40 years before being eligible for parole.
"Some may have been involved with the wrong group or they were defending themselves. Some are cold blooded killers who should be in prison. You shouldn't lump them in in the same group," Williams said.
The other cases heard Tuesday involved Michael Quinn Tate, convicted of first-degree murder in the 2004 stabbing and bludgeoning of death of Westminster resident Steven Fitzgerald, and Erik Jensen, convicted of first-degree murder in the 1998 death of Julie Ybanez of Highlands Ranch.
Tate, 16, at the time of the crime, was convicted of stabbing Fitzgerald when he surprised Tate and an accomplice, who was Fitzgerald's son, after they broke into Fitzgerald's house. Tate's insanity defense was rejected.
Jensen said he helped his friend, Nathan Ybanez, clean up the crime scene after Ybanez killed his mother. Jensen said he did not participate in the killing but he was convicted of murder under the state's complicity theory. Jensen was 17 at the time of the crime.
The Colorado Supreme Court did not say when it would rule.