MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday reinstated a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release for a man who was two months shy of his 18th birthday when prosecutors say he raped and killed a teenage girl, stabbing her 29 times with a screwdriver.
In its majority opinion, the state Supreme Court found that a lower court erred when it retroactively applied a federal ruling that banned mandatory no-parole sentences for juveniles. The lower court changed Tony Roman Nose’s sentence to give him a chance to seek parole — a decision the Supreme Court reversed Wednesday.
Roman Nose, now 31, was convicted in the July 2000 killing of Jolene Stuedemann of Woodbury. Under state statutes he received the mandatory sentence of life in prison without release, and Stuedemann’s family thought he would never be free.
Years later, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole for juveniles was cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. The court didn’t rule out such sentences for teens altogether — only the mandatory aspect. A judge could still issue a no-parole sentence, but would have to take into account “the mitigating qualities of youth,” such as a failure to understand the ramifications of their actions.
The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t say whether its decision was retroactive, leaving the 28 states with mandatory no-parole life sentences to grapple with the issue.
Just last year, the Minnesota Supreme Court found that the federal ruling is not retroactive, and Wednesday’s decision follows that precedent.
“I’m very happy that the Supreme Court upheld his original sentence and he’s not going to get out and threaten anyone ever again,” said Jim Stuedemann, Jolene’s father. “I feel safer. We’ll sleep better, just knowing that there’s not this chance that he’s going to get before a parole board.”
The justices note that going back in time and assessing whether the 17-year-old Roman Nose had mitigating factors that would warrant a different sentence is difficult. Doing so “will not ensure the fair administration of justice. Instead, the integrity and public reputation of the court will be undermined if Roman Nose receives a reduced sentence simply because the passage of time prevents meaningful implementation of the (federal) procedures,” Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea wrote.
“In light of Roman Nose’s age, the brutal nature of his crime, and the overwhelming evidence of his guilt, such a windfall would undermine the public confidence in the judicial system,” Gildea wrote.
Fred Fink, criminal division chief in the Washington County Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors are pleased with the decision. Roman Nose’s attorneys did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Among other things, they had argued that if the prior sentence was reinstated, the justices would be violating the constitution in light of the new federal ruling.
The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the defense argument was a mischaracterization and the Supreme Court is simply reinstating the original sentence.
Justice Barry Anderson wrote in a concurring opinion that there was no compelling reason given in this case to overrule the court’s prior decision on retroactivity, but that some elements of the analysis are troubling. He wrote that it’s important to recognize that the federal decision and the varying opinions on retroactivity create disparity.
“Put more bluntly, some defendants, after decades of incarceration, will have at least an opportunity for release, and others will certainly die in prison,” he wrote.
In another concurring opinion, Justice David Lillehaug said “one can only hope” the U.S. Supreme Court clarifies the issue of retroactivity at its earliest opportunity.
Justice Alan Page dissented, and has said before that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling should be retroactive.
Since mandatory life-without-parole sentences are no longer an option for juveniles, judges have no guidelines for sentencing a teen convicted of first-degree murder. Several legislatures around the country have already dealt with the issue, and Anderson, in his concurring opinion, wrote that it’s up to lawmakers to decide whether life sentences will continue, and what procedures will be put in place.
Stuedemann said there’s a concern that lawmakers could make a change that would give Roman Nose the chance for parole, or that his attorneys will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But Stuedemann said for now, he’s thankful for this decision.
“This one is done,” Stuedemann said. “I just want to bask in this for a while before I worry about the rest.”
Including Roman Nose, there are eight men in state custody for life with no parole for murders they were convicted of committing when they were teens.
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