Ruling Gives Juvenile Murderers in Florida a Shot at Freedom

by | May 27, 2016

By David Ovalle

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday dramatically expanded the number of juveniles -- all of them convicted decades ago when the state still had a parole system -- who can now ask a judge to set them free.

Ripping the state parole system's treatment of juveniles, the court granted Angelo Atwell of Broward County a new sentencing hearing because he was only 17 at the time he committed murder. Legal experts say the sweeping decision opens the door for juveniles who were eligible for parole for other major crimes to get new sentences.

"Today is a good day. The Florida parole system simply did not work," said Florida State University law professor Paulo Annino, who filed a brief on Atwell's behalf. "Juveniles in his situation will finally have an opportunity for a fair hearing."

Annino estimated that as many as 300 juveniles convicted in murder cases statewide could now receive new sentences.

In Atwell's case, he was convicted of gunning down a Wilton Manors school teacher during a robbery in 1990. But the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the old system gave Atwell zero shot of ever leaving prison. The state calculated his release date after the turn of the next century -- December 2130.

"While technically Atwell is parole-eligible, it is a virtual certainty that Atwell will spend the rest of his life in prison," the justice wrote in a 4-3 decision.

Friday's opinion was prompted by two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that shook up how Florida treats juveniles convicted of major crimes.

In the 2010 case Graham v. Florida, the nation's high court outright banned life sentences for juveniles in non-homicide cases, saying they amounted to "cruel and unusual" punishment. The reasoning: science has shown that youthful brains are not fully developed, and they are more susceptible to impulses and outside influences.

Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama, the court banned mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder. The ruling still left room for life sentences for the most egregious of murderers -- but ordered judges to first hear evidence of a killer's childhood and upbringing.

The Florida Supreme Court later ruled that most juvenile killers, no matter when they were convicted, should get new sentences under a new Florida law that allowed for a judge to consider possible release after 15, or 25 years, depending on their role in the crime.

In South Florida, a handful of juveniles have been re-sentenced under Miller. That includes Michael Hernandez, who still got life in prison for butchering his classmate inside a middle school bathroom; and Ronald Salazar, who went from life to 40 years for raping and slicing the throat of his sister.

But until Thursday, the high court had not weighed in on those juvenile killers facing the parole system.

Florida mostly abolished parole in May 1983, although a parole commission still exists to hear cases for people convicted before that date. However, between 1983 and 1994, people convicted of first-degree murder were automatically sentenced to prison for life, with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

A jury in 1992 convicted Atwell of the fatal shooting of Margaret Holuczak, a popular economics teacher at McArthur High School in Hollywood. Holuczak, 41, was gunned down outside her Wilton Manors house when she refused to surrender her purse after two men grabbed it. As they grappled for the handbag, one of two robbers shot her in the back of the head.

Detectives believed that Atwell, a Dillard High School student, was the triggerman. He was sentenced to two life terms and became eligible for parole after 25 years.

But his lawyers insisted that Florida's parole commission was never going to give him -- or anybody really -- a "meaningful chance" to get out, especially because so much emphasis is put on the severity of the crime. They pointed out that in 2014, there were 4,626 inmates eligible for parole, and only 23 actually were released from prison.

"It is unsurprising that parole is rarely granted given that it is 'an act of grace of the state and shall not be considered a right'" under Florida law, attorney Paul Petillo wrote to the court.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed. Justices ruled that the commission's handling of his case violated the "spirit" of the Miller and Graham decisions.

The majority concluded that Florida's parole system, which calculates scores based on the severity of the crime and other factors, does nothing to consider how juveniles are different than adults.

"Importantly, unlike other states, there are no special protections expressly afforded to juvenile offenders and no consideration of the diminished culpability of the youth at the time of the offense," Justice Barbara Pariente wrote.

Three justices dissented, saying the "majority reaches too far into the merits of a parole process not at issue in this case because of the majority's unjustified perception and suspicion" of the parole commission.

Atwell, now 41, will return to a Broward jail and wait for his new sentencing hearing.

The Broward State Attorney's Office declined to comment, saying prosecutors are reviewing the decision. The Florida Attorney General's Office, which argued against Atwell, also declined to comment.

Exactly how many more South Florida cases will return for new sentencing remains unknown.

Gale Lewis, the head of the Miami-Dade Public Defender Office's "special representation unit," said lawyers are now combing through their files to see who might be eligible for a new sentence.

"I think it's a wonderful opinion for all the juveniles who were ever sentenced to life in prison in the state of Florida," Lewis said.

One Miami defendant who will likely get a new sentencing: Richard Calix, now 45. He was 17 when he fatally shot Michael Scharnowske, 35, during a robbery in Homestead. Scharnowske was one of several founders of the Florida Keys Yellow Pages.

Calix was only 17 at the time of the murder in 1988. His lawyer, Philip Reizenstein, said Calix has found religion and repeatedly attempted to apologize to the family, even taking an ad out in the Miami Herald to express his remorse.

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