A state legislator is trying to deny the option of parole to minors who commit second-degree murder — an issue opponents have said the U.S. Supreme Court has already decided.
Moved by a murder in Jefferson City more than a decade ago, Missouri Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, is sponsoring Senate Bill 664, which would eliminate a minor’s eligibility for parole s he is convicted of second degree murder.
A person can be charged with second degree murder for knowingly causing the death of another person or intentionally causing grievous bodily harm resulting in death.
The charge is less serious than first degree murder, which is premeditated and intentional murder, but more serious than intentional homicide, which is generally considered “passion-heated” murder.
Second degree murder is a Class A felony, which is the highest level of felony in the state. Penalties are based on the circumstances of the crime and can range from 10 to 30 years or life in prison.
Generally, offenders who were under 18 at the time of the crime are eligible for parole after serving 15 years of a sentence. However, the state has denied the possibility of parole to people under the age of 18 when they commit first degree murder or capital murder.
Indeed, Bernskoetter’s legislation would expand the scope of these restrictions to also include those convicted of second-degree murder.
It also reverses a change made by the state legislature last session in an omnibus sentencing bill Governor Mike Parson signed into law.
“It has been within the discretion of prosecutors to negotiate murder two convictions when the facts of the case should support a conviction for first degree murder or capital murder – this has been done in good faith over the years, prosecutors and victims agreeing to lesser sentences that still include significant jail time,” Bernskoetter said. “When the current law was changed, it effectively pulled the rug out from under victims and their families.”
Bernskoetter introduced his bill Jan. 18 to the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence.
Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Republican from Parkville and chairman of the Senate Committee on Justice and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence, said second-degree murder was removed from the law imposing the House parole restrictions.
“I think it was probably missed in that process at the end of the session,” Luetkemeyer said.
He also said the local case involving Alyssa Bustamante, a then 15-year-old girl who killed her 9-year-old neighbor Elizabeth Olten in 2009 helped him sponsor the legislation.
Bustamante told investigators she committed the murder because she wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone. She detailed the murder in her diary and called it “Ahmazing”.
Bustamante was charged with first degree murder but entered a plea deal and was convicted of second degree murder with the possibility of parole. She was sentenced to life in 2012, which will be followed by a 30-year sentence for armed criminal action.
With the way the law is currently written, Bustamante could be eligible for parole for murder as early as 2027.
“Some people just don’t deserve to be paroled,” Bernskoetter said. “When you do something like that, sometimes they can’t be rehabilitated, and I think that’s one of those situations.”
Gary Bemboom, Elizabeth Olten’s father, testified in support of Bernskoetter’s bill and said he was told a parole hearing would be set for Bustamante.
“I’m asking you to rewrite the bill or pass this new bill that Senator Bernskoetter must keep Elizabeth’s killer in jail, where she belongs,” Bemboom told the committee. “As a father, I feel like I haven’t done my job to protect Elizabeth. I’m asking you, for Elizabeth, to make sure her killer serves out his prison sentence so she doesn’t do it again.
Bemboom wasn’t the only local person to testify in support of Bernskoetter’s bill.
Jeff Kammerich said second-degree murder should not be eligible for parole because having violent offenders behind bars brings peace of mind to victims and their families.
Kammerich’s brother was shot and killed outside his Jefferson City home by a minor in 2018. After being released on bail, Kammerich said the minor shot and killed a pregnant woman in a week.
“It’s like an endless process of suffering,” Kammerich said. “Whether it’s the bills, whether it’s the calls and all that, and all we want at the end of the day is justice and protecting others from the same situation.”
Rose Ridnour also testified in support of the bill. Ridnour’s mother was shot and killed while working at a gas station in 1989 on Missouri Boulevard.
The juvenile who committed the murder was charged with second degree murder, among several other counts, and sentenced to 107 years. He was released earlier this month after serving 32 years of the 107-year sentence.
“When did Missouri stop holding criminals accountable for their crimes and start looking for ways to free offenders who have committed some of the worst crimes?” asked Ridnour.
The state’s removal of parole opportunities for young people, however, could face legal challenges.
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court struck down mandatory life sentences without parole for children under 18 with its decision in Miller v. Alabama.
In response, the Missouri legislature in 2016 amended state law to allow offenders sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole to seek a sentence review from the parole board after serving 25 years.
Nimrod Chapel, president of the Missouri chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, testified against Bernskoetter’s bill, noting that the Supreme Court has already ruled on the matter and citing evidence suggesting that incarceration without rehabilitation is an ineffective system.
“We understand very well the ramifications of locking people in and throwing away the key,” Chapel said. “We know this is not a preventative measure. What you end up doing is creating larger groups of incarcerated people that taxpayers ultimately have to support in some way.
Chapel said the criminal justice system already has options for dealing with mistakes made by prosecutors, judges and juries, and Bernskoetter’s bill attempts to address a problem that has already been addressed.
Amy Breihan, co-director of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center Missouri office, said the Supreme Court has upheld a series of cases based on the idea that children are less culpable than adults, even when they commit crimes. serious, because their brains are not fully developed.
The Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center is a nonprofit civil rights law firm with a Missouri office located in St. Louis. Breihan did not testify in favor or in opposition, but only for informational purposes.
She said children’s lack of development means they are less deterred by punishment, more vulnerable to peer, family or situational pressure, and have less set personalities, meaning that there is a greater possibility of rehabilitation.
“These individuals are at very low risk of reoffending,” Breihan said. “Crime goes down quite significantly when someone is in their 30s and 40s – in other words, people age out of crime,” she said.
Bernskoetter’s bill would prevent the possibility of parole for 175 minors in prison, Breihan said, costing Missourians more than $3.8 million to keep them in prison.
“I don’t think the cost of incarceration should be a factor, especially when some of these people don’t deserve to be on our streets,” Bernskoetter said.
Click on the link below to read the full invoice:
• SB 664: Eligibility for parole
Sponsor: Senator Mike Bernskoetter