New light cast on ‘96 double murder
A 5–4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday invalidated life without parole prison sentences for juveniles, calling into question the outcome of a 1996 double murder case in Mesa County.
Verle James Mangum was 17 in 1996 when Clifton resident Janet Davis, 42, and her 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer, were bludgeoned to death in their home with a baseball bat by Mangum.
Prosecuted as an adult, Mangum was convicted of the murders by a Mesa County jury in 2003 and sentenced to a mandatory term of life without parole in prison.
At first reading of Monday’s high court opinion, District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said the constitutionality of Mangum’s sentence could be in peril.
“We may have to do a new sentencing hearing on Mangum’s case so that the court can consider other alternatives to life without parole,” Hautzinger said, adding it may take months for lower courts to apply the decision.
Hautzinger blasted the ruling.
“I’m almost ashamed to be a representative of the American criminal justice system today,” the DA said.
“Somehow I doubt that Justices Kagan, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor have any intent of extending their apologies for the massive harm they are inflicting across the country.”
The prospect of new sentencing hearings across Colorado, “will constitute an absolutely unforgivable re-victimization of countless family members of murder victims,” Hautzinger added.
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan wrote mandatory life prison sentences for juveniles without the possibility of parole violate the Eighth’s Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
A concurring opinion from Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor said juveniles lack maturity, arguing science shows “fundamental differences between the juvenile and adult minds.”
The cases examined in Monday’s ruling stemmed from separate robbery and murder prosecutions against two boys, both 14 at the time of the crimes. One boy was convicted of killing a man in Alabama, while the second involved a boy convicted as an accomplice in a robbery at an Arkansas gas station.
In the Arkansas case, Kuntrell Jackson was sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of felony murder and aggravated robbery, even though he wasn’t the triggerman who fatally shot a store clerk during the episode.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a scathing dissent.
“Today’s decision invalidates a constitutionally permissible sentencing system based on nothing more than the Court’s belief that its own sense of morality ... pre-empts that of the people and their representatives,” the justice’s dissent said.
Mangum, now 33, was high on methamphetamine in Mesa County when he used a baseball bat to kill Janet Davis after she caught him having sex with her daughter, Jennifer, according to court testimony and news accounts.
Prosecutors theorized Mangum then killed Jennifer Davis because she was a potential witness against him.
Colleen Scissors, one of two attorneys who defended Mangum at trial, said she was “amazed” the court “did the right thing.”
“There’s no question we have to treat children differently than we treat adults,” Scissors said. “Verle Mangum, if he was responsible for this crime, was still a kid.”