Juvenile offenders avoid life in prison
Ban affects earlier sentences
Juveniles in Ohio can no longer be sentenced to life in prison without parole, in most cases.
Ohio joined 23 other states with similar bans a week ago, and appears to be part of a national movement to give juvenile offenders a second chance.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 banned the death penalty for offenders who committed their crimes as a juvenile, and in 2010 the court banned life in prison without parole for all juvenile offenders except those who committed homicide.
That decision and one from the Ohio Supreme Court in 2016 reversing the 112-year prison sentence Youngstown teen Brandon Moore received for brutal rapes were cited as reasons some Ohio legislators changed Ohio’s law last week.
Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains said he doesn’t agree with the change “because these are really the most heinous offenses. But obviously we will comply with the law.”
Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins said his office “fought against these changes, along with the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association and other prosecutors across the state.”
The new law leaves a narrow group of juvenile offenders who could still get life in prison without parole, said Ralph Rivera, assistant Mahoning County prosecutor. They are individuals who kill at least three people, such as T.J. Lane, who killed three people and injured others at Chardon High School in 2012.
But the new law also has changes that affect juvenile offenders who were sentenced previously. It gives them a chance at parole much sooner than they would have had otherwise. It does not, however, guarantee anyone will be released earlier than the the sentence handed down by the judge.
“The only thing guaranteed is that opportunity to obtain release, which is the parole hearing,” Rivera said. “All of the offenders can serve out their entire sentence if the parole board denies them.”
After the first hearing, the parole board must hold additional hearings within five years.
Among those who will be affected are Moore and his Youngstown co-defendant, Chaz Bunch; and Trumbull County killer Jacob Larosa.
Moore and Bunch kidnapped a woman from the parking area of her job on Detroit Avenue in Youngstown, then took her to the Peyatt Street area, where she was repeatedly raped.
LaRosa beat and killed Marie Belcastro, 94, in her Cherry Street home in Niles and pleaded no contest to aggravated murder, aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery and attempted rape.
In the Youngstown case, Moore, 15, and Bunch, 16, got prison sentences so long, they would not have left prison in their lifetimes. Larosa, 15, of Niles was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But the 2016 Ohio Supreme Court case struck down Moore’s sentence. Moore, now 37, and Bunch, now 36, were resentenced a few years ago in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court to about 50 years each.
Under the new law, defendants convicted of offenses as a juvenile are now eligible for parole after 18, 25 or 30 years in prison.
Rivera said Ohio’s new law makes Moore and Bunch eligible for a parole hearing after serving 18 years in prison. Both have served slightly more than 18 years, meaning that when the Ohio Parole Board is able to schedule a hearing, they can argue for their freedom.
The Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office will have the opportunity to argue against their release, Rivera said, adding: “Nothing prevents the juvenile from serving out the entire sentence given out by the trial court.”
A person such as Larosa, convicted of killing one person, is eligible under Ohio’s new law for a parole hearing after serving 25 years in prison, Rivera said. Larosa, now 22, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in October 2018.
“If the juvenile offender committed one homicide offense — murder or aggravated murder, manslaughter or reckless homicide — they would be eligible automatically after serving 25 years,” Rivera said.
A person who is the primary offender and kills two people as a juvenile would be eligible for a parole hearing after 30 years, Rivera said.
Watkins called the new Ohio law “unnecessary,” saying it will allow Larosa and others in his situation to be “parole eligible and possibly released back into the community in their 30s and 40s.”
He said the new law “nullifies the hard work and judgments of judges throughout the state who have previously, in their discretion and after careful consideration of the facts and background of juvenile offenders such as Larosa, determined that life without parole sentences were necessary to protect the public from these offenders.”
BARNETTE AND GOINS
Another Mahoning County case involves Chad Barnette and James Goins, who were both 16 when they caused mayhem in their Youngstown neighborhood in January 2001 by attacking an 84-year-old man who had gone out to get his newspaper. The victim suffered spinal cord contusion, fractured vertebrae, a concussion, punctured lung and broken ribs.
Later that night, they kicked their way into the home of a man, 64, who was nearly wheelchair-bound and his wife. They had a sawed-off shotgun and beat the couple. Barnette and Goins were each convicted of attempted aggravated murder, and multiple counts of aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, kidnapping and felonious assault, and each was sentenced to about 80 years in prison.
Under the new sentencing law, each is eligible for a parole hearing after serving 18 years, Rivera said. Both were sentenced in March 2002, meaning they have served just over 18 years already. Eighteen years is the start of parole eligibility for juvenile offenders who commit non-homicide offenses, Rivera said.
Rivera said it may seem unfair that Bunch, Moore, Barnette and Goins are eligible for parole after 18 years when someone who committed lesser offenses — but got 20 years in prison — will have the same parole eligibility as these four.
“It essentially puts all juveniles on the same footing regardless of how horrific of an offense that they committed,” he said.