Precocious Teen Gives Voice to ‘Juvenile Lifers’ in Michigan

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Matilyn Sarori, who wrote the 23-page brief for the Michigan Supreme Court, stands in a courtroom at the Michigan Hall of Justice with Patrick Jaicomo, one of the two attorneys who submitted the brief.

Photo courtesy Kimm Sarosi

Matilyn Sarosi, who wrote the 23-page brief for the Michigan Supreme Court, stands in a courtroom at the Michigan Hall of Justice with Patrick Jaicomo, one of the two attorneys who submitted the brief.

At 16, the high school junior is equally comfortable quoting Jesus, Pope Francis and Mahatma Gandhi; research on adolescent brain development from the National Institutes of Health and the American Psychological Association; the Eighth Amendment and U.S. Supreme Court decisions; and “juvenile lifers” serving in Michigan prisons.

Matilyn Sarosi of Ann Arbor, Mich., puts it all together eloquently in a 23-page amicus curiae brief filed with the Michigan Supreme Court on behalf of three people who received sentences of mandatory life without parole as juveniles.

The idea took hold last October at the Sarosi family dinner table when Matilyn’s aunt, MaryAnn Sarosi, a public interest lawyer, mentioned she had been working on an amicus brief for the trio of juvenile life without parole cases before the Michigan Supreme Court.

MaryAnn Sarosi recalls telling her niece and other family members about that brief, which argues the three appellants should have a chance at parole:

“And Matilyn’s reaction when she heard that was, ‘Wait a minute, you could automatically put a 14- or 15-year-old into adult court and then they could be given mandatory life without parole even if they were the kid sitting in a car when the older brother went in to rob a clerk and then ended up killing him?’

“She said, ‘That’s outrageous. What can I do about it?’” MaryAnn Sarosi recalls. “I said, ‘Go write a brief.’ I never thought she would actually write the brief.”

So began Matilyn’s four-month quest to give voice to juvenile lifers serving in Michigan’s 31-prison system. (A decision in favor of the three appellants would also apply to the other 360 Michigan juvenile lifers.)

School Embraced Idea of Writing Brief

Matilyn broached the idea of writing the brief to teachers and administrators at her school, Father Gabriel Richard Catholic High School in Ann Arbor, and they embraced it right from the start.

“I go to a Catholic school, and we’re taught Catholic social teaching and the human dignity of each person,” Matilyn says. “And the fundamental belief in our faith is that humans are capable of beautiful things, and humans are capable of change and we have all been redeemed and we all have the capability to be rehabilitated and to change.

“Jesus himself was a prisoner at one point and he spent most of his time with the prisoners and the sick and the sinners and the prostitutes and the tax collectors, and we’re not excluded from that. We’re all sinners to some extent, and we’ve all been, and Jesus has shown us his love and justice and mercy.”

In her brief, Matilyn argues the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2012 Miller vs. Alabama decision, which declares mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional, should retroactively apply to the juvenile lifers in Michigan prisons.

Many states have applied Miller retroactively, giving juvenile lifers a chance at parole. But other states, including Michigan, and the federal government have not done so, leaving more than 2,500 juvenile lifers behind bars in legal limbo in U.S. prisons.

Matilyn’s amicus brief points to research on adolescent brain development that has been cited in the 5-4 Miller ruling and other recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The high court has noted in those key decisions that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed, and youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.

The amicus brief also invokes scientific research on adolescent brain development by the American Psychological Association and by NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, in a 2011 report titled “The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction.”

‘Give Us 10 Years and We’ll Change’

Hence the amicus brief’s statement: “We know from experience that children are immature, impulsive and reckless decision-makers, but give us 10 years and we’ll change.”

To win over other students at Father Gabriel Richard – about 450 of them, or roughly 85 percent of the student body, signed the amicus brief – Matilyn made about a dozen PowerPoint presentations to classes at the school in late January.

The Rev. Richard Lobert, the school’s chaplain, who also teaches four freshman theology courses, recalls being impressed by Matilyn’s presentation.

“It’s like she ripped a page right out of Catholic social justice teaching,” Father Lobert says.

In the presentations, Matilyn cited the case of Damion Todd (who is also noted in the amicus brief). Todd had been captain of his high school football team and an active member of his church and had never fired a gun.

In 1986, Todd and his friends were in a car outside a Detroit party when shots were fired at the car. Todd fired shots back at an angle with a shotgun, without intending to hit anyone, in hopes of scaring off people who had fired at the car, but he hit and killed someone. Todd, now serving a life without parole sentence, has earned a GED and taken college courses in prison and has reconciled with the shooting victim’s mother.

In the PowerPoint presentations, Matilyn also included the case of Cortez R. Davis, one of the three appellants whose cases are before the Michigan Supreme Court. Davis, then 16, participated in a 1993 street mugging in Detroit during which someone was killed, but did not fire any of the shots that killed the victim. He was convicted of first-degree murder.

Davis is hardly the only juvenile lifer in Michigan not directly responsible for killing anyone.

Many Juvenile Lifers Didn’t Kill Victim

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the nonprofit Second Chances 4 Youth found in a 2012 report that more than 100 of the juvenile lifers in Michigan prisons were present during a homicide but did not kill the victim.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has said he opposes granting parole hearings to any of the 363 juvenile lifers in the state’s prisons, arguing Miller should not apply retroactively. Schuette’s office presented oral arguments at a March 6 Michigan Supreme Court hearing in the Michigan Hall of Justice in Lansing. (The conservative-majority court – composed of five men and two women – is expected to issue a ruling in the case by July 31, the end of its current term.)

In a statement released the day of the hearing, Schuette said: “First-degree murder is a serious crime, and it carries with it serious consequences. Considering even the possibility of new parole hearings for these convicted teen murderers will force victims’ families to relive the deaths of their loved ones. The integrity of our justice system demands crime victims and their families come first.”

Matilyn, who attended the hearing along with about 25 students in her Advanced Placement U.S. History class, said in the brief she sympathizes with the victims’ families and does not play down their pain.

“The pain of losing a loved one in such a violent and destructive way is an unimaginable burden,” she wrote. “Few among us can pretend to understand the depths of such heartache, because we do not carry such heavy burdens. Vengeance is a human response, especially to such acts of injustice, yet our justice system cannot be based upon gut reactions and vengeance.”

She quotes Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.”

And Jesus: “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.”

Matilyn notes murder victims’ families also filed an amicus brief with the Michigan Supreme Court, urging that Miller be applied retroactively to juvenile lifers.

“That’s beautiful evidence of the fact that you can find peace and healing in forgiveness and reconciliation,” she says.

Trauma in Lives of Juvenile Lifers

Matilyn’s brief also points out the trauma many of those incarcerated as juveniles have endured.

It cites a 2012 nationwide survey by The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit, that found almost 80 percent of the more than 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide had witnessed violence in their homes, and nearly half had witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods. The survey also found more than 77 percent of females sentenced as children to life without parole had been sexually abused and nearly half of all juvenile lifers had been physically abused.

The overwhelming majority of Michigan juvenile lifers – about 75 percent – also are people of color, and many were so poor they couldn’t afford counsel, says Shelli Weisberg, legislative director of the ACLU of Michigan, in an interview. “And we have a terrible indigent defense system here,” Weisberg adds.

In the amicus brief, Matilyn states: “We don’t view the individuals [Michigan juvenile lifers] involved in these cases as inherently evil. We believe factors in their lives like where they were raised or the stability of their family environment had a lot to do with their actions and we think to ourselves, ‘There but for the Grace of God go I.’”

Trauma in the juvenile lifers’ lives, the brief says, should have been taken into account when they were sentenced to life without parole, and Miller requires that such trauma be considered in resentencing.

Matilyn’s mother, Kimm Sarosi, a nurse, and her father, Michael Sarosi, a radiologist, tried to instill lessons of Catholic social teaching in her and her older brother and sister (twins now in college) from a young age.

As a young girl, Matilyn volunteered with her parents at two homeless shelters and she now volunteers during summers at a nursing home.

“It’s one thing as a parent to teach it, but how proud Mike and I are that she really is trying to practice social justice, that she’s trying to make a bit of a difference,” Matilyn’s mother says. “She’s a very sensitive soul.”

Many Michigan juvenile lifers would agree.

Inmates Express Gratitude

At least 50 of them have expressed their gratitude to Matilyn in letters, cards and artistic posters.

The Father Gabriel Richard school chaplain, Father Lobert, says many of the inmates expressed similar sentiments:

“What they’re saying basically is: ‘You’ve given us hope. It just doesn’t seem like there are people out there that really care. It’s like they turned the lock, and we’re forgotten now….  You’ve given us hope because we didn’t know that there was really anybody out there that cared.’

“And this is repeated over and over,” Father Lobert says, “so she’s really touched a nerve.”

One former Michigan juvenile lifer whose sentence was commuted by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was so grateful she bought the entire student body at Father Gabriel Richard pizzas and sent along a note that was read to the students.

“Thank you for believing that adults who committed crimes while they were children deserve a serious parole review. Thank you for believing in people like me!” the note said.

“Your advocacy is instilling much-needed hope to all the men and women who are still incarcerated for crimes they committed while they were children. Your work and spirit are  propelling these men and women to believe they are worthy of a second chance!”

Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator of the Washington-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, also praises Matilyn.

“She’s obviously an extraordinary individual, says Lavy, whose organization opposes all life without parole sentences for juveniles. “And we’re delighted that she took the time and effort to do all of the work to bring this about both because it’s important to hear their [students’] perspective but also to know that young people understand what we’re doing to our teens.

“The students approach it from a faith perspective,” Lavy adds, “and we have really seen that across the board, people of all different faiths, all different religions agree that we need to give our young people a second chance and that our society should not be in the process of judging people, particularly young people, for the rest of their lives based on their greatest failures, and rather should be looking at their potential as human beings.”

For her part, Matilyn – an honors student, president of her junior class, varsity soccer player and forensics team member – says her foray into the legal realm opened her eyes to a possible legal career.

“I wasn’t considering it before and now I am,” she says.

Ask her why, and she’ll tell you: “It was the process of writing the brief and getting a feel for the real world of legal justice and of a lawyer and witnessing the Supreme Court in action and seeing attorneys and seeing that this profession could do great things.”

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