Attorneys come to the aid of youth serving mandatory life in prison

by Paul Janczewski
Legal News

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, which set the legal ball rolling in many states for mitigation hearings, or potential re-sentencings for those juveniles.

Nationwide, nearly 2,500 people who were convicted as juveniles await their fate after the Supreme Court ruling. In Michigan alone, nearly 360 people are in prison, convicted while they were juveniles.

Handling those cases, in Michigan and elsewhere, will require a concerted effort of attorneys who will try to seek justice for inmates unfairly convicted. In most, if not all cases, these attorneys will work pro bono.

Two Michigan attorneys among the many who are willing to sacrifice their time, offer their legal skills and expertise, all in the name of justice, are Cary McGehee and Michael Pitt. After previously working together at a law firm, the two co-founded the Royal Oak firm of Pitt McGehee Palmer Rivers & Golden in 1992.

It’s not hard to see why the two prominent legal minds are fighting for underdogs. It’s in their DNA.

McGehee, 50, was born in Virginia, but moved to Birmingham after her father was named bishop of an Episcopalian church in 1971. McGehee played basketball, at a local youth league, in junior high school, high school and college, at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She was a walk-on at BGSU, but eventually earned a scholarship, and graduated in 1984 with a degree in communications.

“I wanted to be an investigative reporter,” McGehee said.

After a bad experience during an internship at a television station, she turned her attention to the law. But not before giving basketball a shot; she played professionally in Dallas for a year. After the league folded, she worked in sales, but didn’t like it. Her father suggested law school, “and I thought it was a good idea,” she said.

“I always had an interest in law and knowing my rights, and advocating for people’s rights,” McGehee said.

Her father was an attorney before turning to ministry. Her passion to fight for the underdog came from her father, who was active in social justice and community issues and started a coalition for human rights in Michigan.

In 1986 McGehee began at the Detroit College of Law with an eye on representing individuals rather than defending corporations. After graduating, she took a job at a firm working with employment cases.

“It was a perfect fit,” McGehee said.

There she met Pitt, a senior partner, and after three years, the two started their own firm.

Pitt, 63, graduated from Wayne State Law School in 1974 and worked at a firm where he learned from legal pioneers in civil rights., whom he calls “legends in the community.”

“And they really fought very hard for establishing legal principals that would have an enduring effect on the lives of people,” Pitt said. “They used the legal system to create long-enduring changes.

“And I just became absolutely fascinated with the process and prospect of using the law to advance social change,” he said. Some of these legends were involved in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1968, getting people out of jail for advocating for fair housing and voting rights, “and they really inspired me.”

McGehee was also involved in Neal v. Michigan Department of Corrections, a class-action lawsuit filed in behalf of more than 500 female inmates who were sexually assaulted by male prison guards, and won awards for her contributions to public interest in upholding human, civil and constitutional rights and advancing social justice.

As for the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, getting involved in the cause to aid convicts who were sentenced as juveniles seemed like a no-brainer for Pitt and McGehee.

McGehee said the ruling is trying to take into account factors that were not looked at years ago in sentencing these juveniles, such as their immaturity, acting on impulse, peer pressure, family life.

“It’s wrong to think that someone who committed a crime when they were 14 or 15 should be done for life and never given an opportunity,” she said.

In many of these cases, the juveniles did not have intent to kill someone, did not anticipate a murder would occur, and in some cases did not even participate in the killing but were caught up in the act under the aiding and abetting theory, acting as lookouts.

Often, their sentence was more severe than the person who actually committed the killing, she said.

Pitt said the ruling affects all states, but Michigan ranks among those with the most juveniles incarcerated to life without parole. He said much of the reason the highest court ruled those sentences unconstitutional has to do with the science that juveniles are “much different” behaviorally than adults.

“Until recently, they were deemed to be miniature adults, but the science has developed to the point where scientists are able to demonstrate the juvenile brain is not developed, and parts of the brain deal with judgment and making choices is grossly under-developed,” Pitt said. “And to apply adult standards is cruel and unusual punishment.”

Pitt said the quest for re-sentencing those juveniles convicted as adults is now in limbo because of several cases in the state Court of Appeals. Simply put, legal arguments center on whether the U.S. Supreme Court ruling meant their ruling would be retroactive, affecting those already in prison who may have exhausted all their appeals, or only for future cases going forward.

“Some of the more conservative elements of the judicial system do not want re-sentencing to occur,” Pitt said.

The outcomes of that contest rely on many factors, such as the make-up of the Supreme Court after the election, roadblocks by prosecutors, judges and even victims’ families.

McGehee said one thing attorneys will do is reach out to those victims to see how they are doing and if their stance has changed. She also wants judges and prosecutors to give them adequate time to present the facts of each case.

“It could be quite a bit of time before those issue are resolved, but it’s going to get resolved, and I think sooner or later there’s going to be re-sentencing on these cases,” Pitt said.

For now, the work continues. McGehee and Pitt said a number of attorneys and law firms in Michigan and nationally are taking on individual cases in a collaborative effort in anticipation of  the new rules and getting their clients back in court for re-sentencing.

In most instances, those lawyers hope to convince judges to re-sentence their clients to time served. But that also depends on how the individual has spent their time in prison. A juvenile
who has collected a number of infractions might stand a poor chance of getting out, while one who has taken advantage of rehabilitation choices might curry more favor.

Each case represents its own set of factors. Pitt’s case involves a kid who had the mental capacity of a 9-year-old when convicted.

“In many cases, it’s scandalous the way the legal system has totally ignored the reality of what it’s doing,” he said. “What I’ve learned throughout the years is that the legal system sometimes pays no attention to reality, none whatsoever, and it just goes on it’s merry way without thinking of the consequences and what it’s actually doing to people.”

McGehee said the effort, dubbed the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, rests in the hands of the Michigan ACLU, the University of Michigan Law School Criminal Defense Council, the state Appellate Defender’s Office (SADO), and law firms and individual attorneys.

McGehee and Pitt said they are merely worker bees in the effort, but are proud to be part of the pro bono effort.

“We have the skills necessary to make an effective presentation, so everybody’s committed to doing the best possible job they can do,” Pitt said. “And having the skills that we have, we would have been ashamed of ourselves if we just stood on the sidelines.”

McGehee said working for this effort is all about fairness.

“How can you not look at that situation and say something is wrong, and fight for that person for another chance? Because if you’re not going to fight for them, nobody is.”