When Nicholas Aponte recalls the night in 1995 that sent him to prison, he describes an immature 17-year-old who told himself he was tough but in reality lacked the nerve to say no to a cousin he admired for being a troublemaker.
Sitting with a group of boys on a porch, playing cards and drinking, the cousin said he needed to “do a robbery” and asked if Aponte wanted to tag along.
“I said, ‘OK, we’ll do the robbery or whatever,’” Aponte said. “It was spur of the moment.”
The plan failed. A 28-year-old sandwich shop assistant manager was killed during the robbery. Aponte was later arrested, as was his cousin, younger brother and a friend. Even though Aponte didn’t fire the gun, prosecutors considered him the ringleader. He was treated by the courts as an adult and sentenced to 38 years without parole. That means he will be 55 when he’s freed.
“All this time was hard to perceive, for somebody so young,” Aponte said in a prison interview. Now 35, with more than half his life spent in Connecticut prisons, Aponte dreams of finishing his bachelor’s degree, becoming a nurse and being with his family.
Aponte is among an estimated 2,100 so-called juvenile lifers across the U.S. — inmates sentenced to lengthy prison terms without parole — who hope for a reprieve in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. Alabama. The decision determined such sentences are cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. The court ruled, 5-4, that the proportionality of the sentence must take into account “the mitigating qualities of youth,” such as immaturity and the failure of young people to understand the ramifications of their actions.
In part to head off an avalanche of expected appeals, at least 10 states have changed laws to comply with the ruling. In June, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed a bill eliminating mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile killers, who are also ineligible for the death penalty. The new law requires juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to serve at least 25 years in prison while still allowing judges the discretion to impose a sentence of life without parole. Juvenile offenders convicted of first-degree murder are also allowed to petition for a sentence modification after serving 30 years.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed a bill in February specifying that juveniles convicted of murder would be eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison. Last fall, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation giving judges options other than life in prison when sentencing juveniles in murder cases. Other states with new juvenile sentencing laws include Arkansas, California, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Dakota and Utah, according to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures this summer.