HELENA — A U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder also applies to Montana cases in which judges used their discretion to hand down the same sentence, the Montana Supreme Court has ruled.
However, in a 4-3 ruling Wednesday, justices denied a man's petition for resentencing for a murder he committed six weeks before he turned 18.
The majority rejected the argument that Derrick Steilman's 110-year sentence without the possibility of parole was a de facto life sentence because it includes the possibility of earning day-for-day time off for good behavior.
Steilman, now 39, pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide in the crow-bar beating death of Paul Bischke in Butte in 1997 and is serving a concurrent 26-year sentence for a Washington state murder committed a year later.
"After factoring in both the day-for-day good time credit to which Steilman is eligible, and the credit he gets toward his Montana sentence while serving his concurrent sentence in Washington, Steilman could potentially serve as little as 31.33 years exclusively attributed toward Bischke's murder," Justice Jeremiah Shea wrote for the majority.
Had the Montana judge sentenced Steilman to serve those 31 years consecutive to his Washington state sentence, "Steilman would be hard pressed to argue that such a sentence was disproportionate to the horrific crime he committed."
"Determining whether a sentence is cruel and unusual does not require us to ignore reality," Shea wrote in the opinion also signed by Chief Justice Mike McGrath and Justices Beth Baker and Jim Rice.
"I'm disappointed with the outcome but pleased with the court's hard work and the thoughtful analysis of the dissent," said Steilman's attorney, Colin Stephens of Missoula. "We need to discuss things with our client but will almost certainly be asking the United States Supreme Court to review the case."
The three dissenting justices noted courts in other states have ruled that lengthy terms-of-years sentences imposed on juveniles, similar to Steilman's sentence, have been enough to trigger the constitutional protections raised in the U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
The court should consider the actual sentence imposed on Steilman, and not the possibility he may receive credits for good behavior, in determining whether his petition should be granted, Justices Michael Wheat and Dirk Sandefur wrote in their dissent.
They argued the Montana Supreme Court should remove the parole restriction from Steilman's sentence, leaving it up to the state Board of Pardons and Parole to consider his age at the time of the crime and his behavior as an inmate to determine if he should be released.
Justice Laurie McKinnon argued Steilman's case should be remanded for re-sentencing, allowing the sentencing judge to determine if Steilman's crime demonstrated irreparable corruption or permanent incorrigibility — factors the U.S. Supreme Court said could justify sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Another Montana man, Steven Wayne Keefe, is serving three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole for an October 1995 triple homicide committed when he was 17.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana filed a petition in state District Court in Cascade County arguing Keefe, now 50, should be resentenced because his age and potential for rehabilitation were not taken into account at the time. His petition was stayed pending the outcome of Steilman's petition.
Alex Rate, the legal director for the ACLU of Montana, believes the Supreme Court's ruling bodes well for Keefe's effort to seek resentencing.