Parole Possible for Long-Imprisoned Killer

     ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — A man who has spent decades in prison for a murder he committed when he was just 16 deserves a new parole hearing, a New York appeals court ruled.
     “We agree with petitioner that, as a person serving a sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile, petitioner has a substantive constitutional right not to be punished with a life sentence if the crime reflects transient immaturity,” the April 28 decision states.
     Dempsey Hawkins has served 36 years so far for strangling his 14-year-old girlfriend, Susan Jacobson, in 1976.
     It took authorities two years to find Jacobson’s body because Hawkins had hid it in a 55-gallon drum, “which he then placed inside a 12-foot shaft of an abandoned shipyard located at the tip of Staten Island.”
     Though Hawkins had long denied involvement in the girl’s disappearance, he ultimately confided in friends, was arrested and sentenced in 1979 to 22 years to life.
     The New York parole board has denied Hawkins nine times since he became eligible for release in 2000, usually citing the severity of his crime.
     Hawkins petitioned the Sullivan County Supreme Court for either immediate release or a new hearing when the board’s appeals unit let his last challenge linger for four months unresolved.
     The state appealed when the court agreed that Hawkins deserved a new hearing, but a three-judge appellate panel affirmed last week, citing the board’s failure “to consider the significance of petitioner’s youth and its attendant circumstances at the time of the commission of the crime.”
     Recent precedent by the U.S. Supreme Court says “that consideration is the minimal procedural requirement necessary to ensure the substantive Eighth Amendment protections,” according to the ruling.
     “Here, neither the hearing transcript nor the board’s written determination6 reflects that the Board met its constitutional obligation to consider petitioner’s youth and its attendant characteristics in relationship to the commission of the crime,” Justice William McCarthy wrote for a five-person panel.
     McCarthy added that Hawkins “was entitled to a meaningful opportunity for release in which his youth, and its attendant characteristics, were considered by the board.”
     Though the panel generally affirmed, it struck down part of the lower court’s ruling that excluded a particular parole board commissioner from participating in Hawkins’ future hearings.
     Two years after striking down mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders with the 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Montgomery v. Louisiana to apply that the decision retroactively.
     The American Civil Liberties Union has been working since then on behalf of long-incarcerated juvenile offenders across the country to obtain their releases, or at least an opportunity for parole.
     A concurring opinion by Justice Elizabeth Garry says Hawkins has consistently “demonstrated exemplary conduct within the prison setting.”
     “Considering the record as a whole, together with the substantial constitutional issues discussed in the opinion of our colleague, we find that judicial intervention is required here,” Garry wrote, joined by Justice Michael Lynch.
     Justice John Egan Jr. meanwhile wrote in partial dissent that the majority opinion “glosses over the underlying factual differences that distinguish petitioner from the defendants in Graham, Miller and Montgomery — the most notable of which being that, unlike the defendants in those cases, petitioner was not actually sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
     “Indeed, having appeared before the Board on multiple occasions, there is no question that petitioner has been afforded an opportunity for release,” Egan added.
     Justice Robert Rose joined Egan’s dissent, which says Hawkins “repeatedly raised — and the board indeed was aware of and considered — petitioner’s age and asserted lack of maturity at the time of the offense.”
     “Upon reviewing the transcript of petitioner’s March 2014 appearance before the board, we are satisfied that the Board properly and adequately considered petitioner’s age and asserted immaturity at the time of the offense before denying him discretionary release,” Egan wrote.

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