HELENA, Mont. — U.S. Supreme Court decisions prohibiting mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders have prompted requests for resentencing from two Montana inmates.
Derrick Earl Steilman was given a 100-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to beating a man to death in Butte in September 1996 — six weeks shy of his 18th birthday. Steven Wayne Keefe was convicted of three counts of deliberate homicide during a home invasion near Great Falls in October 1985, when he was 17.
Steilman’s efforts have made the most progress, with arguments held before the Montana Supreme Court in May. Attorneys for Keefe asked that his petition for post-conviction relief be stayed pending the ruling in Steilman’s case.
Steilman, now 38, pleaded guilty to fatally beating Paul Bischke as part of a pact with a friend with whom Steilman was planning future crimes, including a bank robbery. The idea was to demonstrate that they wouldn’t turn each other in. Bischke was chosen at random, court records said.
However, Steilman wasn’t prosecuted until after he was arrested and convicted of a similar beating death in Tacoma, Washington, in September 1998. People who knew about the Montana killing were afraid to come forward until Steilman was in custody, court records said. Steilman is serving a concurrent 26-year prison sentence in Washington for the second homicide — committed when he was an adult — before he is to return to Montana to serve out that sentence.
The Montana Supreme Court has not yet issued a decision in the appeal of the 100-year term.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court said its ban on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders applies to those already serving such sentences, and many of those inmates nationwide are now winning new parole-eligible terms or their freedom. The high court has said such sentences are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual when applied to anyone but the rare irredeemable juvenile offender.
Steilman’s attorneys argue his age and maturity level were not taken into consideration during sentencing. But state Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Krauss contends the high court’s ruling doesn’t apply to Steilman because he wasn’t actually sentenced to life without parole. The 100-year sentence allowed Steilman to accumulate good time, which means he could be eligible for parole when he is 74.
Attorney Collin Stevens argued that isn’t a meaningful opportunity for release, given average life spans. He asked that Steilman’s case be sent back to district court for resentencing.
STEVEN WAYNE KEEFE
The American Civil Liberties Union is asking a district court to grant Keefe’s petition for resentencing. Keefe, now 49, received three consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole for killing Great Falls ophthalmologist David McKay; his wife, Constance; and their 40-year-old daughter, Marian McKay Qamor, during a burglary in October 1985.
The ACLU of Montana argues Keefe’s youth and potential for rehabilitation were not taken into account when he was sentenced, nor did the court make a finding of “irreparable corruption” before handing down the lifetime term. The state has not replied to Keefe’s motion because the case has been stayed, ACLU attorney Alex Rate said.
Montana’s Legislature abolished life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders in 2007.
Read more about the series: https://apnews.com/tag/LockedUpForLife