Fourteen prison inmates serving life for crimes they committed as juveniles won a court order Friday to stop the Nebraska Board of Pardons from commuting their sentences next week, meaning the inmates' lawsuit can proceed in court.
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Fourteen prison inmates serving life for crimes they committed as juveniles won a court order Friday to stop the Nebraska Board of Pardons from commuting their sentences next week, meaning the inmates' lawsuit can proceed in court.
The Pardons Board announced had earlier this month that it would hold hearings on Monday and Wednesday to consider commuting the life sentences of more than two dozen inmates convicted as juveniles. Douglas County Judge Thomas Otepka ruled Friday to halt the board's hearings.
The prisoners fear the board's planned action is designed to subvert a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that threw out mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles. And on Thursday, Public Defender Tom Riley filed a lawsuit on behalf of 14 of the inmates, the Omaha World-Herald reported (http://bit.ly/Txl6DQ).
Riley believes the Pardons Board - made up of Gov. Dave Heineman, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and Secretary of State John Gale - plans to commute the sentences to no less than 50 years each.
Such a move would be similar to action taken in July by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who commuted the mandatory life sentences of 38 convicted killers who committed their crimes as juveniles to life sentences that allow for parole after 60 years in prison.
A spokeswoman for Heineman said the Pardons Board has no plans for across-the-board commutations.
"The Pardons Board has scheduled these hearings in order to hear these cases individually," Heineman spokeswoman Jen Rae Hein told The Associated Press on Friday.
Gale's office declined to comment. In a statement Friday evening, Bruning said his office was still deciding how to proceed.
"We respectfully disagree with the court's decision," Bruning said in a news release. "This is an unnecessary delay to Nebraska's compliance with the (U.S. Supreme Court) decision that risks untold state financial resources. We are reviewing the ruling and considering our options."
In a written statement to the World-Herald, Bruning spokeswoman Shannon Kingery said, "The decision to review the sentences is clearly within the purview and authority of the Pardons Board. These hearings will help to ensure the public remains protected and the offenders are held accountable for their crimes."
In the lawsuit, Riley argues that the Pardons Board does not have jurisdiction to commute the sentences, because most of the inmates have not applied for commutation. Only two of 27 prisoners potentially affected by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling have applied for commutation, and those two are in the process of withdrawing their applications, Riley said.
The lawsuit also argues that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling invalidates the 27 prisoners' sentences, meaning the Pardons Board has no constitutionally valid sentences to commute.
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com
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