Talking with Robert Howard, the man, made it hard to see him as the 15-year-old who landed in prison for life.
“Robert asked me every penetrating, serious question that I had ever been asked — about the origins of evil and the evidence of God,” says Brookes Baker, who met Howard in the early 1990s during a Christian mission visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Howard was “one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever talked to.”
Howard was working at a New Orleans restaurant in 1967 when he lent money to a cook who he said refused to repay it. The teen got his father’s gun. When the man charged at him, Howard’s second shot killed him.
Howard pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life without parole. After an escape, he was returned to prison, determined to find a legal way out. He chronicled his life in letters published by family and friends as a book.
“I have always felt that youngsters only get one side of the coin when considering a life of crime,” he wrote. “They see the fine cars and money, but they never envision what happens when they are caught.”
Howard studied law, pursuing clemency and commutation, and when the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional, he gained confidence. In January 2016, the Supreme Court said its earlier ruling was retroactive, forcing Louisiana and other states to begin reviewing the sentences of juvenile lifers.
But not Howard, who died five months earlier. “We thought he was going to get out when the Supreme Court passed that first juvenile law,” said his cousin, Maple Gaines. “His one wish was that he didn’t want to die in prison.”
LOCKED UP FOR LIFE
Decades ago in the tough-on-crime ‘80s and ‘90s, many states — stoked by fears of teen “superpredators” — enacted laws to punish juvenile criminals like adults. The U.S. became an international outlier, sentencing offenders under 18 to live out their lives in prison for homicide and, sometimes, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery.
There has since been a shift. Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases. Then last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get an opportunity chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.
The January 2016 ruling set the stage for an unprecedented second look at hundreds and hundreds of cases, some many decades old now, in courtrooms across America. The Associated Press leveraged its reporting power in all 50 states to examine how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are now revisiting juvenile lifer cases. Many have been resentenced and released, with more hearings continuing in the days, weeks and months ahead. But in some states, officials have delayed review of cases or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.