By JASON KRAFT
Capital News Service
LANSING – A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that juveniles sentenced to life in prison should be guaranteed a shot at parole came three months too late for one Michigan man.
Stephen Osterhout of Gaylord saw no end to his lifelong imprisonment, according to longtime friend Linda Day. He took his life behind bars this past October.
The Jan. 26 court ruling means that about 350 inmates in Michigan serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles could get a chance at parole.
Those inmates must either be considered for parol, or given a new sentence, said Chris Gautz, public information officer at the Department of Corrections.
How that’s going to happen is uncertain.
“At the beginning it won’t be a state process. It’ll be handled at local levels with local government,” Gautz said. “Then it’s up to the parole board, which is under the Department of Corrections.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without parole. That ruling did not affect thousands of inmates across the country who had already been sentenced as juveniles to life without parole.
Rather than implement a nationwide decree, the court opted to leave it to each state to decide what to do with those inmates. Michigan chose not to apply the law to those sentenced in the past. The new ruling changed that.
Michigan prosecutors have 30 days from the ruling to provide their county judge a list of the individuals in their jurisdiction serving a life sentence without parole. The prosecutors then have 180 days to inform the judge which prisoners want to appeal for parole or receive a new sentence.
“The Supreme Court has 83 counties and therefore up to 83 prosecutors filing appeals all at once,” Gautz said. “All of this is months down the road.”
The Department of Corrections is helping the prosecutors process their information to the courst so they can start the process. Cost may be negligible.
“I don’t know that the appeals would cause a cost to Michigan,” Gautz said. “Those eligible will fold into our normal schedule of parole hearings. It wouldn’t be an extra cost, just more work for the parole board.”
“In Lake County we have one individual, Richard Simmons, serving a life sentence without parole from back in the ’80s,” said Craig Cooper, Lake County prosecuting attorney. “It’s going to be a process.”
“When the sentence came down, there was a sense of finality for the victim’s family,” Cooper said. “Now that’s gone, which is unfortunate for them.”
Attorney Gen. Bill Schuette had urged the U.S. Supreme Court not to apply the ruling retroactively. Andrea Bitely, Schuette’s director of communications, said the office is reviewing the ruling and have no comment.
Some advocates said the ruling was too late.
On April 12, 1988, 16-year-old Stephen Osterhout shot and killed Cheboygan businessman Dean Edward Lyons. Osterhout was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Last October, Osterhout, then 43, was found dead in his cell in the Baraga Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula.
Linda Day, a Cleveland university administrator and longtime friend of Osterhout, said that the prison refers to his death as an “apparent suicide,” but three months later has yet to conclude the investigation.
Osterhout was inquisitive, intelligent and curious, Day said. Prison staff and fellow prisoners nicknamed him “professor.”
Osterhout dedicated much of his free time to researching the Supreme Court’s impending ruling that would decide his fate, she said. “He couldn’t stand the idea of being in prison for the rest of his life. I don’t understand why he didn’t want to see their decision. We have been waiting forever for this, and just three months… that’s the horror.”
Osterhout did not think the Supreme Court would ever rule in his favor, Day said.
“I will never know why he took his life,” she said. “Maybe the ruling wouldn’t have made a difference, but I think it would have.
“I knew Stephen, and knew that he would be a benefit to the world if he was ever released. I wanted to see him get a second chance in life like so many of us out here have received.”
By JASON KRAFT