A Casper man convicted of murder as a juvenile may have a way out of life imprisonment. If he is successful, other Wyomingites in similar circumstances may follow him.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year abolished mandatory life sentences for juveniles in a case called Miller v. Alabama. Local attorneys are asking the Wyoming Supreme Court whether this ruling would apply to in-state cases retroactively, after a convicted juvenile killer has been sentenced.
Edwin “Ike” Mares was 16 on Nov. 30, 1993, the day he and three other teenagers broke into a residence on West 15th Street in Casper. The ringleader, Victor Madrid, had always wanted to burglarize the house.
The group waited until the home’s resident left for dinner to sneak in, but Madrid was surprised by another woman coming out of the bathroom.
Madrid stabbed 76-year-old house guest Velma Filener repeatedly in the chest, back, side and arm. Mares witnessed the vicious attack, but claims he took no part in it and implored Madrid to just leave. According to a recent memorandum, there was “no indication or finding that Mares harmed anyone or even possessed a weapon.”
In June 1995 he was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2012 that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles are cruel and unusual punishment. The Miller v. Alabama ruling states that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform … they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.”
Mares participated by phone in a Tuesday meeting in Natrona County District Court and was represented in person by defense counsel Dianne Courselle and Graham Hersh from the University of Wyoming School of Law.
Blonigen recently filed a motion to ask the Wyoming Supreme Court two questions: Would the Miller standard be applied retroactively to Wyoming cases; and what standard should be applied to determine whether the case has retroactive effect?
In a later interview with the Star-Tribune, Blonigen explained that the second issue calls into question the respect for finality of a previous judgment.
“Will this new Supreme Court case apply to cases that are decades old?” he said. “The issue is, how will we balance this out?”
Natrona County District Judge Catherine Wilking on Tuesday certified both questions, which pushed them straight to the Wyoming Supreme Court, therein bypassing a ruling of her own.
Gov. Matt Mead in February signed a state law that would end mandatory life sentences for juveniles, giving them a chance at parole after serving for 25 years. The state Legislature, though, did not write the law to apply retroactively.
The law does not eradicate life sentences for juveniles entirely, but impels courts to consider cases individually. A judge may take maturity level and the juvenile’s previous record into consideration.
Blonigen said there are other several inmates in Wyoming who are waiting to see how Mares’ case turns out to determine whether their life sentences could be retroactively reviewed as well.
There are currently six other Wyoming inmates who are serving life sentences for crimes committed while they were juveniles, according to information provided by the Wyoming Public Defender’s Office: James Browning, Thomas Rivera, James Wiley, Jon Roderick, Jon Sides and Robin Sanders.
Even before the Miller decision, the nation was trending toward limiting mandatory life-imprisonment sentences for minors, said Jennifer Horvath, staff attorney with the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Some legislatures were banning life without parole; some courts were decreasing the use of the sentence.
The national trend after the Miller ruling favors more opportunities for parole, she said. The ACLU supports court and legislative decisions that give juveniles an opportunity for rehabilitation.
“We don’t think it makes sense to send kids to die in prison,” she said. “We believe that children can be rehabilitated, and that courts and society should recognize that.”