Angola

Kevin Jordan was just a few months over 17 when he leaned out a car window with a revolver and killed a 12-year-old boy who was tinkering with a bike on a street in Mid-City.

Although the death of Wendell McGuffey was front-page news when it happened in 1996, little has been heard of the case since Jordan was sentenced to life in prison. He was supposed to spend the rest of his life there and die without a chance at parole.

Now, defendants like Jordan, sentenced to life for crimes they committed as juveniles before 2012, have a second shot at freedom, thanks to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and a change to state law.

But many won't get released without a fight. District attorneys for Orleans and Jefferson parishes filed dozens of notices before an Oct. 30 deadline to announce that they oppose granting parole eligibility to many defendants, including Jordan.

Prosecutors filed notices at such a rate — in 34 percent of cases in Jefferson and 47 percent of cases in Orleans — that prisoner advocates charge they have abandoned their duty to reserve life without parole for the “worst of the worst” juvenile offenders.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, say they have been forced to make difficult decisions about whether to oppose the release of inmates convicted of some of the most horrific crimes imaginable.

The debate will play out for months to come in state courtrooms and for years after that at state parole board hearings. Hanging in the balance is the fate of life inmates like Jordan.

“I take full responsibility for a lot of the decisions I made in my short-lived life of crime, but this is what I want you to understand,” Jordan wrote in a recent letter to the judge overseeing his case. “When I was a juvenile, I thought like a juvenile.”

Sweeping change

Sixty-four juvenile lifers from Orleans Parish and 29 from Jefferson Parish got a new chance at freedom last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that many teenagers sentenced to life without parole for crimes before 2012 must receive hearings on their parole eligibility.

In that case and another one four years earlier, the high court cited recent scientific studies finding that young brains are impulsive, still developing and often incapable of fully grasping the consequences of their actions.

The decision set off a flurry of legal motions in courtrooms across the state. Earlier this year, the Louisiana Legislature decided to standardize the process for parole eligibility. In essence, the state said that juvenile lifers will get a chance to go before parole boards unless district attorneys persuade a state judge to block that process by again sentencing them to life without parole.

State law now says juvenile life-without-parole sentences should be reserved for the “worst of the worst.”

“In none of these cases are we talking about release. We’re really talking about review,” said Jill Pasquarella, an attorney with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. “They will have an opportunity to go before a parole board and make the case that they are worthy of redemption.”

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro is a critic of the Legislature’s decision. He believes the state should have handed all the cases over to the parole board for its consideration.

“They’re in better contact and communication with the individual than the judicial system that sentenced him some 20, 30 or 40 years ago,” he said in a recent interview.

Nevertheless, Cannizzaro and Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr., who did not agree to an interview, have filed notices seeking life without parole in many such cases.

"If I were not to weigh in at the district court level, then I think my weighing in at the parole board is to some extent watered down,” Cannizzaro said.

The Jefferson DA's Office reviewed 29 inmates’ cases and sought court hearings in 10 of them. The Orleans office reviewed 64 cases and asked for hearings in 30 of them, according to Cannizzaro’s office.

Four of the notices filed in Orleans Parish were "placeholders" because prosecutors have not yet determined whether to oppose parole eligibility, Cannizzaro said.

A difficult call

Across the state, prosecutors have opposed parole eligibility for a third of juvenile lifers, according to data collected by the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

Cannizzaro said that his staff combed through old case records and prison disciplinary files and contacted victims’ survivors to decide whether to oppose parole eligibility in each case.

“This is a very difficult call for us to make. If a victim’s family comes in and tells us, 'Hey, I have been affected by this for the last 30 years; my whole life changed that night when I lost my husband or I lost my father,' then certainly that is something that we take into account,” he said.

Inmates for whom New Orleans prosecutors have opposed parole include:

• Scott Lingle, who was 15 when he used a pair of scissors to fatally stab a 62-year-old woman in her head, face, neck, chest, back and genitals in 1982.

• Jerome Smith, who was convicted of shooting to death Freret Street bakery owner Bill Long at 15 during a botched armed robbery in 1985.

• Warren Harris Jr., who earned the moniker “the French Quarter stabber” at 16 with a series of attacks that left several gay people dead over a few months in 1977.

However, in 34 cases, parole eligibility has already been granted or New Orleans prosecutors have decided not to stand in the way of an inmate’s shot at release.

“There have been many cases where victims and family members have said, ‘We have no objection to this individual being paroled; we have moved on with our life and we believe he has served enough time,’ ” Cannizzaro said.

Critics like Pasquarella, with the Center for Children’s Rights, say that prosecutors like Cannizzaro have exercised their right to oppose parole eligibility far too often.

“I think we just see really a flouting of the constitutional mandate given to us by the U.S. Supreme Court,” she said. “They could have recognized … not only the law but the truth behind the law, that the vast majority of children are worthy of redemption and will change and grow.”

Pasquarella warns that district attorneys are risking a legal challenge to the entire system Louisiana has erected for determining the "worst of the worst" juvenile offenders. New Orleans will be under heavy scrutiny because it makes up a disproportionate share of the nation’s juvenile lifers, she said.

Although New Orleans had 0.1 percent of the country’s population in 2014, it accounted for 3.1 percent of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, according to the Phillips Black Project, a nonprofit law firm.

A lifer’s plea

For many juvenile lifers, a decision on their parole eligibility could be months or years away. In cases where the District Attorney’s Office is opposing parole eligibility, the Orleans Public Defenders office is refusing to represent inmates, citing budget restrictions.

Jay Dixon, the state’s chief public defender, said the Legislature created an unfunded mandate with the legislation it passed this year. "We don't have the assets and the funding to provide a proper hearing in every case,” he said.

Jordan, the man convicted of killing a 12-year-old boy in 1996, has sometimes acted as his own lawyer over the past year and a half. Last year he mailed Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman a motion from Angola asking her to reconsider his life-without-parole sentence.

His victim’s mother declined to comment on the case, but prosecutors’ opposition to his parole eligibility likely means that the family does not want Jordan ever to appear before a parole board.

At Jordan's trial, prosecutors described the 12-year-old McGuffey as a collateral victim in a war between gangs on two sides of Canal Street.

In June, Jordan wrote a letter to the judge. He said that in his decades in prison, he has taken anger management classes and earned certifications in painting and welding. He mourned his mother’s death this May and prayed for the “indescribable pain” he has caused McGuffey’s family and his, he said.

“I truly believe if it wasn’t for God’s good mercy and the strength he enabled me to have during this hard trial of my life, I would not have made it this far,” he said.

Staff writer Grace Toohey contributed to this report.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432