Teens serving virtual life sentences in Mississippi will die in jail

These Mississippi teens escaped life without parole. But they will still die in prison.

Frederick Pritchett is expected to leave prison in 2111 for crimes he committed as a teenager.

By then, he’ll be 116 years old — if he lives that long.

That’s because he was sentenced to 100 years in prison (becoming one of many serving virtual life sentences) for two non-lethal crimes he committed as a teenager.

Frederick Pritchett. Courtesy of MDOC

 

Now 26, Pritchett is one of 370 Mississippi inmates serving virtual life sentences — that is sentences of 50 years or more. Of those “virtual lifers,” 22 were juveniles like him when they committed the crimes that led to their incarceration, according to a recently released national report No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life in Prison by The Sentencing Project. In addition, Mississippi has 2,041 serving life sentences, with 1,600 of them serving life with parole, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

The Sentencing Project report said lengthy prison sentences ignore the fact most people who commit crime, even those who have committed a series of crimes, age out of criminal conduct. The people most at-risk for committing crime are those in their late teens to mid-20s, said Sentencing Project senior research analyst Ashley Nellis, author of the report.

Many of those serving virtual life sentences weren’t convicted of violent offenses, according to a data analysis obtained by MCIR. For instance, 13% of those sentenced were for the possession or sale of drugs, 12% for burglary, 2% for grand larceny, 1% for car theft, and 1% for forgery, bad checks and shoplifting.

Among those serving violent crimes, convictions involving homicides made up only 4%. Other major categories: 15% for rape and other sexual assaults, 10% for assault, 10% for armed robbery and 6% for kidnapping.

On Nov. 29, 2012, Pritchett was 17 when he was sentenced to 55 years in prison for armed robbery, kidnapping and motor vehicle theft.

Less than a month later, he was charged with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer and robbery involving an incident while in custody at the Lauderdale County Detention Center. He was later convicted and given the additional 45 years.

A female correctional officer said Pritchett asked for a cup of water and when she opened the cell door to hand it to him, he grabbed her arm, initiating a struggle. She said Pritchett choked her. The confrontation lasted about one minute and 15 seconds before Pritchett released the guard. Her cellphone was later found in Pritchett’s cell.

Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Pritchett argued on appeal that he should have faced no more than a simple assault charge in the case. However, the Mississippi Court of Appeals denied his appeal to dismiss his conviction.

Pritchett was sentenced as a habitual offender, meaning he will have to serve most of the sentence before being eligible for parole.

“We have concerns about any extreme sentence. That is particularly true when the person was a juvenile at the time of the offense,” Mississippi State Public Defender Andre de Gruy told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

He said he and other juvenile justice advocates have been working in the courts and state Legislature since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision addressing the problem of kids sentenced to life without parole. The court ruled mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional and should be reserved for the rare juvenile offender who is “permanently incorrigible.”

Jonsha Bell was sentenced to a total of 95 years in prison, without the possibility of parole or earned release, for non-homicide offenses he committed on June 1, 1994, when he was 17.

Jonsha Bell MDOC

Bell was convicted of armed robbery, burglary, and two counts of kidnapping. He was sentenced as a habitual offender.

Jake Howard, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center in Mississippi, filed an appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court arguing the 95-year total sentence deprived Bell of the meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation required for juvenile non-homicide offenders by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Mississippi Constitution.

“Mr. Bell’s aggregate sentence guarantees that he will die in prison,” Howard argued

The Mississippi Court of Appeals rejected Bell’s appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case.

De Gruy said due to so many sentenced before Miller and still more facing life without parole for new offenses, his office simply hasn’t had the capacity to look into virtual life sentences.

The Legislature passed a bill this session to provide parole eligibility for some youthful offenders. De Gruy said “we are hopeful” the governor will sign it. “There will still need to be a lot of work done in the courts and the Legislature regarding how we treat juveniles in the criminal legal system as well as the Youth Court system, but meaningful parole eligibility would be a good start,” he said.

The Legislature passed Senate Bill 2795 last month that would grant parole eligibility for more inmates including those convicted of armed robbery after serving 60% of their sentence or 25 years, whichever is less. The bipartisan bill also allows nonviolent offenders to be eligible for parole after serving 25% or 10 years for offenses that occurred after June 30, 1995.

The legislation doesn’t mandate parole. It only allows a parole hearing before the Mississippi Parole Board. Gov. Tate Reeves hasn’t said whether he will sign it. Last year, he vetoed a sentencing reform bill, citing it could lead to parole for those convicted of murder and sex crimes. This year’s bill doesn’t allow parole eligibility for those convicted of murder and sex crimes.

However, the legislative bill – even if signed by the governor – likely won’t have much impact on virtual life sentences since it doesn’t allow parole eligibility for habitual offenders. The majority of those serving long, cumulative sentences were sentenced as habitual offenders.

When eligibility for parole is meaningless

Across the country, states are facing the contradiction of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional while having sentencing laws that amount to virtual life.

Under Tennessee law, life without parole is 60 years. The minimum sentence for life with parole is 51 years, the longest in the country.

The case of Cyntoia Denise Brown was intended to be something of a test balloon for other juvenile offenders in state prisons serving virtual life sentences. At 16, she was sentenced to life with parole for killing a man she said hired her for sex.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the sentence. Brown appealed to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, saying 51 years violated the findings in Miller. The court denied relief because the Miller decision prohibits mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders and Brown received a life sentence with parole.

In 2018, Brown’s lawyers challenged her sentence in federal court with the same argument.

Her appeal was never heard. In January 2019, Gov. Bill Haslam granted Brown clemency, rendering her appeal was moot and leaving the constitutionality of Tennessee’s 51-year life sentences an open legal question for juvenile offenders. Brown was released on Aug. 7, 2019.

Following the Miller ruling, South Dakota eliminated life without parole for juvenile killers, but the state’s high court has upheld virtual life resentences.

Paul Jensen, who was 14 in 1996 when he killed a cab driver during a robbery, was sentenced to life without parole. In June 2016, after a two-day resentencing hearing he received concurrent terms of 200 years, making him eligible for discretionary parole at age 39 and for parole based on good-time credit at age 116. The South Dakota Supreme Court on April 19, 2017, rejected Jensen’s appeal of his 200-year sentence as a de facto life sentence. On Feb. 15, 2019, the U.S. District Court denied his request for a review of his sentence, saying “no reasonable jurist could find that Jensen was resentenced to a mandated life imprisonment without parole.”

The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that Jensen’s co-defendant, Shawn Springer, who was 16 at the time and pleaded guilty to kidnapping, wasn’t eligible for resentencing because he had a chance of parole. Springer was sentenced in 1996 to 261 years in prison with the chance of parole after 33 years.

Daniel Charles was 14 in 1999 when he killed his stepfather, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. After a hearing Oct. 21-23, 2015, in light of the Miller ruling, he was resentenced to 92 years, making him eligible for parole in 2045, at age 60. The South Dakota Supreme Court on March 29, 2017, affirmed the resentencing, noting “our comparison of the gravity of the offense against the harshness of the penalty does not lead to an inference of gross disproportionality.”

A similar situation occurred in Nebraska after lawmakers there overhauled the state’s sentencing laws in 2013 in response to Miller.

In May 2013, the Nebraska governor signed LB44 into law. It set a new sentencing range of 40 years to life for those who commit first-degree murder or kidnapping. However, some of the affected inmates were given such long prison terms that they’re effectively life sentences. Two got 90 years to life; one, 80 to life; one, 70 to life; and one, two consecutive sentences of 45 to life.

Edward Neal MDOC

Is a de facto life sentence for juveniles unconstitutional?

Some of the others serving virtual life sentences in Mississippi prisons:

  • Edward Lamont Neal is serving 95 years for a string of crimes that began with malicious mischief. He was initially sentenced to five years for that offense and five years for jail escape in Lowndes County. He was then convicted of burglary of an unoccupied dwelling and given 25 years in prison. Later in a separate case, Neal was given 60 years as a habitual offender after his conviction for armed robbery and aggravated assault. His tentative release date is 2098.
  • Steven Thomas pleaded guilty in 2007 in Madison County Circuit Court to kidnapping, forcible rape and armed robbery. Thomas, 17 at the time, confined a male in an office in Canton and a woman in a closet. He forcibly had sex with the woman. He took $20 from her. He was sentenced to 70 years. Thomas said in his court petition last year to the Mississippi Supreme Court that his young age at the time of the offenses, his difficult childhood and a history of substance abuse made him less culpable than a similarly situated adult offender. He asked the court for an evidentiary hearing in his case and argued that his sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. The court denied his petition. At his sentencing, Thomas’ attorney had mentioned his age at the time of the offenses, and the judge in his case noted the presentencing report on Thomas discussed his drug use that began at age 12.
  • Michael Cochran was 15 when he was charged with attempted armed robbery and aggravated assault in June 2002. He was 16 years when a Coahoma County Circuit Court jury convicted him and he was sentenced to two 50-year terms and one 20-year term. The sentences run concurrently, but the 50 years to serve is without the possibility of parole.
  • James Wash was 16 when he was sentenced in 1999 in George County to a combined 60 years without parole for aggravated assault and armed robbery. He has now spent more than half his life in prison. His release date is 2058 when he will be 77 years old. In a court petition to vacate Wash’s sentence, his attorney argued the only way he will complete his sentence is if he exceeds his life expectancy by nine years. “It’s a de facto life sentence,” said his attorney Ross Parker Simons.

Simons said recently he still represents Wash, who is now 39.

Michael Cochran MDOC

“I believe that any non-reviewable de facto life sentence for a minor is unconstitutional,” Simons said of his reason for continuing to represent Wash pro bono.

Simons said the hope is the Mississippi Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court eventually will rule a non-reviewable de facto life sentence (one that exceeds natural life expectancy) for a minor is prohibited.

Simons said some state supreme courts have found such sentences violate the Eighth Amendment and have remanded cases back to lower courts for new sentencing hearings, but Mississippi is not one of them.

James Wash MDOC

Among the states that have applied the U.S. Supreme Court rulings to virtual lifers is New Jersey.

On Jan. 11, 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court’s findings in Miller apply “with equal strength to a sentence that is the practical equivalent of life without parole,” as ”[t]he proper focus belongs on the amount of real time a juvenile will spend in jail and not on the formal label attached to the sentence.” 

Although the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t take the Wash case from Mississippi for review, Simons said he is waiting for the court to take a similar case and hopefully decide in favor of the defendant.

MCIR Managing Editor Debbie Skipper contributed to this report.

Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization that is exposing
wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for MCIR’s newsletters here.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization that seeks to empower citizens in their communities by informing and educating the public. Their full bio is here.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization that seeks to empower citizens in their communities by informing and educating the public. Their full bio is here.

More Articles

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!