Connecticut Supreme Court to deal with constitutional issue of lengthy juvenile sentences

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HARTFORD, Connecticut — Connecticut's Supreme Court has decided to take up three cases that could decide how the state handles the convictions of children who commit murder and other violent crimes.

The court will hear appeals Tuesday from three people who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for crimes they committed while under the age of 18.

The hearings come after two U.S. Supreme Court decisions that essentially prohibit mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in homicide cases, and require states to provide inmates with a "meaningful opportunity" for release in non-homicide cases.

In Connecticut, 14- to 17-year-olds charged with certain serious crimes can face adult prison terms, including mandatory life-without-parole sentences. The cases taken up by the state high court involve defendants who were sentenced to mandatory terms or sentences that would require them to spend their entire life in prison.

"These cases will give the courts the opportunity to address these juvenile sentencing issues and begin setting some parameters," said Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane.

Ackeem Riley is serving a 100-year sentence without the possibility of parole for murders he committed when he was 17. Prosecutors say he already had a lengthy criminal past when he became the triggerman in a May 2006 drive-by shooting in Hartford that took the life of 15-year-old Kerry Foster Jr. and 14-year-old Cinque Sutherland.

Riley's lawyers argue that even though his sentence wasn't mandatory, because of his age, it violates those Supreme Court rulings and the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

"It's the first case the court has agreed to hear on this issue, so it will clearly have some import," said Adele Patterson, the public defender who will argue the case on Riley's behalf.

That appeal will be followed by arguments in the case of a prisoner known as Taylor G, who was sentenced to mandatory minimum of 10 years for sexual assaults that occurred when he was 14 and 15 years old. His lawyers are expected to argue that because the judge was not allowed to take into account his age and other factors, that sentence also is unconstitutional.

The third appeal comes from Jason Casiano, who is serving a 50-year sentence after pleading no contest to the felony murder and attempted robbery of a North Haven sub shop clerk, Denis Horan, in 1995, when he was 16. Lawyers are expected to argue that his sentence amounts to life, in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The state legislature this year failed to pass a bill that would have eliminated mandatory life-without-parole sentences for individuals under 18 and required judges to consider youth-related factors, such as maturity level, in sentencing juveniles in adult court.

It also would have provided juvenile offenders with a chance for a parole board hearing after serving 60 percent of a sentence or 12 years, whichever is longer.

Advocates say without such a law, the courts can expect to hear dozens of other appeals.

There are about 250 Connecticut inmates serving sentences of 12 years or more for crimes committed when they were under 18. About 50 are serving sentences of 50 or more years and most are not eligible for parole.

"I think we can expect litigation to continue, with lots of cases involving different sets of facts and legal issues," said Quinnipiac University law professor Sarah R. Russell, who has studied the juvenile sentencing issue in Connecticut "Without legislation, it may take years before all the uncertainty is resolved."

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