I-Team report: Juvenile injustice? - WNEM TV 5

I-Team report: Juvenile injustice?

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Eddie Spiller (Source: WNEM) Eddie Spiller (Source: WNEM)
Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton sits down with David Custer. (Source: WNEM) Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton sits down with David Custer. (Source: WNEM)
Sofia Nelson, State Appellate Defender Office (Source: WNEM) Sofia Nelson, State Appellate Defender Office (Source: WNEM)

A strong arm of the law is tipping the scales of justice.

"These are first degree murder cases. These are the worst of the worst," Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said.

A public defender is fighting for balance after a high court ruling.

"Who you are at 16 or 17 is not who you're gonna be at 40," said Sofia Nelson, assistant defender for convicted murderer Eddie Spiller.

Spiller is weighing a chance at freedom.

"I am working to have people forgive me and now I am asking for mercy," Spiller said.

The Supreme Court ruled juveniles who commit murder should have a chance for freedom at some point, even years after their conviction. The ruling was based on science. The court said a child's brain is more susceptible to peer pressure and has poor impulse control, but is capable of rehabilitation.

"He's really grown up into a responsible 40-something-year-old man who recognizes that this is the horrible mistake that he made," Nelson said.

She said she would have no problem living next door to Spiller. That is if he is ever granted a chance at freedom.

"Has turned his life around and desperately hopes for a second chance," Nelson said.

She is relentlessly fighting for a lesser sentence for 42-year-old Spiller. He is serving life in prison for a crime he committed at 17-years-old.

It was the perfect plan - robbing a known drug dealer, Rickki Taylor. The three conspirators were going to split the loot, but the plan took a deadly turn.

"The drug deal robbery turned into a homicide. Mr. Spiller shot the victim through the back of the head and killed him," Leyton said.

He said the other two defendants were found guilty of armed robbery or second degree murder. But since Spiller pulled the trigger, he was locked up for life.

"I don't think it's fair to say we are being unreasonable. I don't think it's fair for those out there to say, 'Well, you are defying the Supreme Court,'" Leyton said.

But that's exactly what Nelson believes prosecutors are doing. She's not only representing Spiller.

The State Appellate Defenders Office is taking on about 200 cases out of the more than 300 inmates in Michigan sentenced to life as juveniles.

"Prosecutors are supposed to exercise their discretion within the law and the law says that only the very rarest of juveniles who are irreparably corrupt can have a sentence of life without parole," Nelson said.

Leyton said these are the rarest of cases.

"The other cases have been dealt with in years past and leniency was given, pleas were given. Juries convicted the individuals of lesser crimes. Some of them were dealt with in the juvenile system," Leyton said.

Spiller insists he is not the worst.

"I don't [want] people to think that I am entitled to it because of a court decision. I want to show that I deserve a second chance. I am not the same teenager I was 25 years ago," Spiller said.

That kid had everything going for him - a supportive family and he did well in school. While in prison, Spiller has earned his GED, mentored new inmates and is certified in electronics and computers.

"I understand it, the implications of the incident that happened and Mr. Taylor was a loved person and his family. I acknowledge that. And I was wrong for that. And now I am asking for mercy," Spiller said.

Leyton said Spiller's sentence is under consideration as his office is working to track down the victim's family for their input. For now, his petition to reinstate a sentence of life without parole stands.

The I-Team discovered in Mid-Michigan's two counties with the most cases - Genesee and Saginaw - it's a common theme. Prosecutors want the majority of the juvenile murderers to remain locked up for life.

Genesee County is asking 22 of 26 to be resentenced to life. That is 85 percent.

Saginaw County is at 95 percent. They initially petitioned to have all 21 remain locked up for life.

"We reserved the right to have them all sentenced to life without parole until such time as we are able to gather all the information necessary to apply those factors," Saginaw County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Boyd said in a statement.

Boyd went on to say they are working to evaluate each case as some are 35-years-old.

Just this month his office withdrew the petition to resentence Henry Hill Jr. to life. Hill committed murder at just 16-years-old in 1980.

The now 53-year-old has spent 36 years behind bars. His new sentence was 34 and a half years, which means he is now eligible for parole. That makes him the first juvenile to be resentenced in Saginaw County.

"I'm just overjoyed. I cannot believe it. It's a day I've been waiting for," said Marva Jones, Hill's sister.

Once he's out Hill's family said the first order of business is to take him to McDonald's for a hamburger. It's a simple freedom most take for granted.

It's a freedom Spiller hopes will someday become his reality.

"I really haven't had a chance to actually live life like the way Sofia or you are living life now. So I have a lot of ideas of how I would like to live life, but I don't know if it's realistic," Spiller said.

Nelson said it's not too late for the prosecutors to change their mind.

"Just because they have filed seeking life without parole doesn't prevent them from withdrawing the motion," she said.

Juvenile lifer James Washington III, featured in the I-Team's previous report on the topic, wrote this essay:

The essay was published in the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing this year.

Washington said it is "an honest depiction of my defining moments in prison from a juvenile lifer to the young man I am today."

To read the previous I-Team report on juvenile injustice click here.

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