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Advocates see Missouri case as the next frontier in juvenile sentencing reform

A photo portrait of a Bobby Bostic, who is seated and wearing a gray prison uniform.
File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
39-year-old Bobby Bostic was 16 in 1995 when he committed several felonies during an armed robbery. He got a 241-year sentence despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says juveniles should not be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes.

Bobby Bostic was 16 when he committed several felonies in the course of an armed robbery. Two years later, he was sentenced to 241 years in prison.

Advocates for juvenile sentencing reform say that runs contrary to earlier U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting how harshly the courts can punish young defendants who have not killed anyone, and they are now asking the justices to weigh in.

The restrictions began in 2005, when the high court ruled that young defendants could not be sentenced to death, citing their relative immaturity and their capacity to change. Five years later, using the same logic, the justices ruled that young defendants who had not killed anyone could not be sentenced to life without parole.

But the 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida left open the question of whether it was constitutional for young defendants to receive multiple long prison sentences for violent crimes that will keep them in prison until after their natural life span. That’s true for Bostic, who received that 241-year sentence in 1997, when he was 18.


The crime

Two weeks before Christmas 1995, Bostic and an older friend were walking around in McRee Town when they spotted a group of people they hadn’t seen before. The five men and women were in the south-central St. Louis neighborhood delivering Christmas donations to a needy family.

“We just saw that they had stuff, and it was just an easy robbery,” Bostic, now 39, said during a recent interview in the visiting room of the Jefferson City Correctional Center. “It wasn’t planned or nothing, it was just spontaneous.”

Bostic and his friend, 18-year-old Donald Hutson, shot the two men in the group, even after they had turned over their wallets and cash. About 45 minutes later, the young defendants forced a woman into her car and drove off, threatening to kill her if she did not give them additional money. She was also sexually assaulted during the encounter.

Bostic and Huston were captured later that night after a brief foot chase. They both faced 18 felony counts, including assault and kidnapping.

Hutson pleaded guilty and got 30 years in prison. Bostic ignored the advice of his attorneys and his mother and decided to go to trial. He said his stepfather, who had spent time in prison, told him to not to take a plea deal because he didn’t know how much time he would get.

“People where I was incarcerated at too, they were taking mercy of the court pleas and they was told they would get 10-12 years, and they were coming back with 20 years,” Bostic said. “I just figured that the jury wouldn’t be so hard on me.”

The gamble didn’t pay off. Judge Evelyn Baker gave him 241 years in prison — the first triple-digit sentence she had ever handed down. In court she told him, “You will die in the Department of Corrections.”

“At the time, it was my belief that he did understand, but he just didn’t care,” said Baker, who retired from the bench in 2008. “He just came across as being a little sociopath.”


The Jefferson City Correctional Center on February 28, 2018.
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Bostic lives at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. Since he was sent to prison, he has earned a business studies certificate and is working on an associate's degree.

A change of heart

Baker also heard Hutson’s case, and said she didn’t think twice about the vast disparities in the sentences.

“But I think about it now and no, it doesn’t fit,” she said.

Baker’s thinking about the appropriateness of harsh sentences for juveniles started shifting as more and more research came out about brain development.

“I realized that Bobby was being a 16-year-old little punk,” she said. “And from things I’ve read about him, Bobby has actually grown up.”

That’s why Baker agreed to join 26 other former court officials, including judges and prosecutors, in signing a brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Bostic’s case.

“I had hoped that the Missouri Supreme Court would have done something about the sentence, but they didn’t,” she said.

Tony Rothert, the ACLU of Missouri’s legal director and Bostic’s attorney, filed the official request, known as a writ of certiorari.

“The unexamined issue by the Supreme Court thus far is whether a sentence that is life without parole is OK just because it’s not called life without parole,” Rothert said. Bostic is technically eligible for parole at 112, Rothert said, “but we all know that he will not be alive when he is 112.”

Most state courts have decided that consecutive long prison terms are not OK, even if the sentence isn’t officially called life without parole when it’s handed down. But other states, including Missouri, want the Supreme Court to say that specifically.

The justices have rejected past requests to clarify the meaning of life without parole, Rothert said, but a few things make him cautiously optimistic about Bostic’s case. First, he said, that split among state high courts is getting worse, and federal courts are also divided on the issue.

“In most states, Mr. Bostic would have a new sentencing hearing already. Simply because he’s in Missouri, he does not, and that’s not how the Constitution works,” Rothert said.

Rothert is also cautiously optimistic because the Supreme Court asked Missouri to respond to his request — something that only happens in about 30 percent of cases. That document is due March 15.



Still a long way to go

Once the state files its response, there is no deadline for the Supreme Court to act. Bostic has legal options if the justices decide not to hear his case, but the process would be a long one. And a Supreme Court ruling in Bostic’s favor doesn’t mean he’ll get out of prison immediately. It would simply give him a chance to argue for his freedom — a chance that he deserves, said Baker.

“There was a recent case in St. Louis with a 16-year-old certified juvenile,” she said, referring to a young defendant who is tried as an adult. “It was a murder case. He was sentenced to 30 years. The 16-year-old who killed someone has a chance of leaving. Bobby doesn’t.”

Baker has not talked to Bostic, but said she has one question for him: “What have you learned?”

A life lesson, Bostic said, who calls Baker’s support “the greatest blessing.

“It was sad that I had to learn it the hard way by being hard-headed and not listening to my family,” he said. “I have become a different person, the exact opposite person of who I was. From the day I got that sentence, I was determined to be something or somebody. Even though I had all the time I had, I still wanted to do something with my life."

Bostic got his GED while behind bars, earned his business studies and paralegal certificates, and is working on an associate’s degree. He has written 13 books, including poetry, and when he gets out — he deliberately uses the word “when” — plans to start an independent book publishing company and a nonprofit to work with youth.

“I just believe that one day I will get out, and I feel like that I have something to give to the world. That’s why I never gave up on getting out,” he said.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.