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News & Press: Montana Supreme Court

Supreme Court denies appeal of life sentence for homicide committed as juvenile

Wednesday, December 13, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Joe Menden
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The Montana Supreme Court today denied a Montana man’s appeal of his 110-year sentence for homicide on the grounds that the sentencing court did not consider his youth at the time of the crime.

According to court documents, Derrick Earl Steilman was six months shy of his 18th birthday when he killed Paul Bischke in September 1996.

The case was the first in Montana addressing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling that held that holding that prisoners previously given automatic life sentences with no chance of parole for crimes committed as juveniles must have their cases reviewed for resentencing or be considered for parole.

In the 4-3 opinion written by Justice James Jeremiah Shea, the court ruled that Steilman’s sentence does not qualify as a de facto life sentence because because he was eligible for day-for-day good time credit that could reduce the sentence to 55 years. Therefore, Shea reasoned, the case does not reach the merits of whether the sentencing court properly considered the special circumstances of his youth.

Justice Michael Wheat, in a dissent signed by Justice Dirk Sandefur, wrote that the majority was wrong to conclude that a 55-year term is outside the scope of triggering Montgomery. Justice Wheat notes that other states have found that sentences of as low as 45 years have triggered Supreme Court protections.  Justice Wheat would have amended Steilman’s sentence by striking its parole restriction.

In a separate dissent, Justice Laurie McKinnon wrote that she would have also granted the habeas petition; in contrast to Justices Wheat and Sandefur, however, she would have remanded for resentencing.

Steilman's attorney, Colin Stephens of Missoula, told the Associated Press that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is likely.

“I’m disappointed with the outcome but pleased with the court’s hard work and the thoughtful analysis of the dissent,” Stephens said. “We need to discuss things with our client but will almost certainly be asking the United States Supreme Court to review the case.”