COLUMBIA, S.C. — Wallace Priester was 15 when he and a friend shot two other teens to death at a South Carolina fast-food restaurant. Frustrated that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibited the death penalty for teens, prosecutors secured two consecutive sentences of life without parole for Priester, who remained stoic throughout his 2001 trial, recanting his confessions to police.
Now 31, Priester is one of more than three dozen state inmates eligible for new sentences and a possible shot at release in the wake of Supreme Court decisions banning mandatory life without parole for minors.
In 2012, the high court barred states from imposing mandatory no-parole terms on juveniles convicted of murder. Then last year, the court made its ruling retroactive, saying those already serving such sentences must be given a chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if they did not, have some hope for freedom.
A 50-state examination by The Associated Press has found that for those who have received these life terms across the country, the rulings’ promise of resentencing and a chance at eventual release has so far been halting, inconsistent and sometimes elusive.
The AP spent months reviewing how counties and states are wrestling with re-examining juvenile life without parole. While some have resentenced and released juvenile lifers locked up for years, others have resisted taking action as battles continue in legislatures and courts. The response has prompted lawsuits in some states and accusations in others that prosecutors are dragging their feet or defying the high court’s order to offer a second chance to all but the worst of the worst offenders.
Here’s a guide to the situation in South Carolina:
Priester is one of 38 prison inmates who received life without parole as juveniles, according to information provided by the state Department of Corrections. That figure includes three inmates who had death sentences changed to life without parole after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 banned capital punishment for offenders under 18.
Three of the 38 have been resentenced to terms ranging from 30 to 40 years. Another, Tavario Brunson, is awaiting resentencing. No so-called juvenile lifers have been released on parole.
STATE COURT RULINGS
In 2014, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that sentences of life without parole were unconstitutional for juveniles, ordering that such inmates could request resentencing. The courts didn’t lay out guidelines, however, saying only that inmates had the right to a second crack at the system.
Last year, South Carolina’s chief justice issued an order addressing the procedures to be used in the management and disposition of those resentencing motions, such as how judges are assigned to the cases. Inmates including Priester filed for new sentencing hearings; his case is still pending.
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