CASPER, Wyo. — A new Wyoming law that ends mandatory life imprisonment for juvenile killers won't change the sentences of eight people already serving life for crimes they committed before the age of 18.
The law, which Gov. Matt Mead signed two weeks ago, gives juveniles with life sentences a chance at parole after serving 25 years. They would also be eligible for parole based on a governor's commutation.
The Legislature did not write the law to apply retroactively. So when it goes into effect July 1, it won't affect people already serving life for crimes they committed as juveniles, said Deputy Attorney General Dave Delicath.
“The statute doesn't change anything for them,” he said. “Their sentences were within the law allowed at the time.”
Before the new law, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder could receive sentences of either life or life without the possibility of parole. But even a sentence that kept alive the possibility of parole still required a commutation from the governor.
The U.S. Supreme Court did away with mandatory life sentences for juveniles last year in a case called Miller v. Alabama. The court has also held that juveniles must have a meaningful opportunity at parole — something Wyoming's existing penalty structure for first-degree murder doesn't provide.
The new law will bring Wyoming in line with the Miller ruling, said Jennifer Horvath, staff attorney with the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We are fortunate that the Legislature moved quickly on this,” she said. “Wyoming was fortunate in the timing. I think a lot of states haven't really sussed out what they are going to do yet.”
The Miller ruling has already prompted the Wyoming Supreme Court to throw out the life sentence of Wyatt Bear Cloud, who was convicted of first-degree murder for the shooting death of a Sheridan man, a crime that occurred when Bear Cloud was 16. Bear Cloud's attorneys appealed in light to the Miller decision, and in an opinion released earlier this month, the state Supreme Court ordered him to receive a new sentencing hearing.
The state ruling did not entirely do away with life sentences for juveniles. But the justices did specify that state courts must hold special sentencing hearings for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. At such a hearing, a judge would consider a juvenile’s record, maturity level and chance at rehabilitation.
The other seven prisoners who are serving life for crimes committed as juveniles could seek new sentencing hearings based on the Bear Cloud and Miller decisions, Horvath said. Depending on what happens, those cases could ultimately end up before the Wyoming Supreme Court.
“I'm not exactly sure how this is going to play out,” she said.