Jason Morrison

In 2014, Thayer Green faced life in prison without parole when he was sentenced as a habitual offender for a non-fatal home invasion, second-degree battery and simple robbery of the mother of his child. Green was 17 at the time of the crime.

In a first-of-its-kind ruling in Louisiana, the state's top court concluded in the Baton Rouge case that a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision barring life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses also applies to cases like Green's — juveniles sentenced as habitual offenders to life without parole for non-homicides.

Green, sentenced under the state's habitual offender statute to life without parole for the 2012 home invasion, had previous simple burglary and simple robbery convictions.

The Louisiana Supreme Court on June 29 affirmed Green's convictions in the home invasion case, but amended his life sentence to delete the restriction on parole eligibility and instructed the state Department of Corrections to reflect an eligibility date for the Parole Board to consider.

The justices also sent Green's case back to state District Judge Chip Moore for a hearing so Green, now 22, can try to show that his life term is excessive.

Mike Mitchell, East Baton Rouge Parish's chief public defender, said his office will take up that charge.

"Children are capable of rehabilitation, and Mr. Green's sentence, in this case, should reflect that," Mitchell said Friday.

"We will conduct a full investigation into Mr. Green's life, both before and after his conviction, to show the sentencing judge that the interests of justice require a significantly reduced sentence proportionate with his age and the Constitution," Mitchell said.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, no relation to the judge, said Green still could be sentenced to life in prison, but he would be granted opportunity for parole after serving 25 years.

That's because two weeks before the state high court's ruling, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law a bill by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, that pares back life without parole sentences for juveniles so it is no longer allowable unless it's a first-degree murder case.

Under the new law, most juveniles sentenced to life would be granted a shot at parole after serving 25 years.

The Green ruling also came 10 months after the state Supreme Court ruled in a New Orleans case that a 99-year sentence without the possibility of parole — that's what Alden Morgan was serving for an armed robbery he committed in 1998 at age 17 — is unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.

The Green and Morgan rulings were in response to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have set juveniles apart when it comes to the harshest criminal penalties. Under those decisions, juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for any crimes except homicide, and only juvenile killers who possess "irretrievable depravity" can be denied future parole eligibility.

It was the U.S. high court's 2010 ruling in Graham v. Florida, which the Louisiana high court cited in its Green decision, that prohibits juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses from being sentenced to life without parole.

The Louisiana justices sent Green's case back to the 19th Judicial District Court for Chip Moore to consider whether Green "indeed poses a grave risk to public safety…."

"The Supreme Court's decision in Graham was founded on the notion that juvenile non-homicide offenders, because of their youth and greater capacity for reform, are significantly less culpable than adults who have committed the same or worse offenses, and therefore deserve different treatment at sentencing," Justice Marcus Clark wrote for the state high court majority.

"In finding life without parole an unconstitutional punishment for a juvenile non-homicide offender, the Court held that states must give such an offender a 'meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation' and must not make any judgment at the outset that he will never be fit to rejoin society," Clark added.

Hillar Moore said his office does not take exception with the state Supreme Court's ruling in Green's case and acknowledges that it is "appropriate under the particular facts and circumstances."

The victim in the Green case was 17 at the time of the home invasion.

In a partial dissent, Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson said she would have thrown out Green's conviction and ordered a new trial because the state, on the second day of his trial, disclosed for the first time that it had seized Green's cellphone records months earlier and had downloaded all the text messages — some 635 pages.

Johnson said the texts establish the victim's "pattern of manipulation" of Green. The two were impetuous and immature teens, she added.

The text messages suggest the girl "orchestrated" the events of that night by "toying" with Green and inviting him to her home when she was there with another boyfriend, the chief justice wrote.

Justice Jeff Hughes also dissented for the reasons given by Johnson.

  

Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.