BY L.L. BRASIER
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Dontez Tillman and Thomas McCloud were 14-year-old middle schoolers in Pontiac in the summer of 2008.
Neither was old enough to drive, drink, nor apply for a video store membership.
Today, Tillman and McCloud are serving mandatory life in a Lapeer prison, convicted as adults of first-degree murder in November for the beating deaths of two homeless men over three days with older teens.
“I screwed up my life,” McCloud told the Free Press in a prison interview. “I wish I could take it all back, that I never left the house that day.”
Their case brings into focus Michigan’s position in a national debate over how to handle young killers. The state has 352 prisoners serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed while they were juveniles — the second-highest number in the world, behind Pennsylvania at 444.
Legislators and the U.S. Supreme Court are rethinking the idea of sending teens away to prison forever. Michigan is among 12 states where legislation has been introduced that would ban the practice, or at least give judges some discretion. Texas and Colorado in recent years have banned mandatory life for juveniles.
But Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, whose office tried Tillman and McCloud, said the boys are exactly where they belong. “These are gut-wrenching, soul-searching determinations,” she said.
As the debate continues, Tillman, now 15, and McCloud, now 16, spend their days in a juvenile unit at the Thumb Correctional Facility, an adult prison in Lapeer. At age 21, they will be transferred to the state’s adult prison population to spend the rest of their lives.
Some say teens don’t know better
Tillman and McCloud were not listening to their lawyers in the months leading up to their 2009 first-degree murder trial.
Prosecutors were offering the two middle-schoolers a deal: Tell us who helped you stomp and beat to death two homeless men, and we’ll let you plead to second-degree murder. They could walk free in 15 years.
Take the deal, their attorneys urged.
Instead, the two listened to their mothers, who said no. A jury then convicted both boys as adults for first-degree murder in November.
Tillman and McCloud are among Michigan’s total 45,000 inmates. Their days are spent doing chores, watching television or walking in the exercise yard. They will likely never walk free.
Their story paints a terrible irony, some defense experts argue. They are boys old enough to be charged as adults under Michigan’s stringent get-tough-on-juveniles laws. Yet they are children who deferred to their mothers for the most important decision in their young lives — a decision that put them behind bars for life.
But those who have lost loved ones because of violent teens say some youths belong in prison forever.
“You take a life, you give your life,” said Terry Bingham, 36, of Shelby Township. His brother, David Bingham, 39, was robbed at a gas station in Pontiac in July 2005 by Christopher Jackson, then 17. As Bingham stood inside the gas station convenience store calling 911, Jackson returned and fatally shot him. Jackson, who taunted Bingham’s family at his sentencing, is serving life in prison without parole. “He should never see the sunlight again,” Terry Bingham said.
Critics cite the Tillman and McCloud case as an example of everything that is wrong with Michigan’s laws, which allow a child of any age to be tried and sentenced as an adult to life without parole.
“Kids are stupid. Their brains aren’t fully formed. We can’t treat them like adults,” said Deborah Labelle, an Ann Arbor attorney who helped draft “Second Chances,” a 2006 report to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan about children serving life sentences in the state’s prisons. Some members of the state defense bar, including Robyn Frankel, a Birmingham defense attorney who represents young offenders seeking appeals, said they believe courts should start appointing guardians ad litem — attorneys who would represent the best interests of young juveniles facing serious charges.
“There is a serious glitch in the law, and it’s appalling,” Frankel said. “Parents don’t have the objectivity that is needed in cases like this.”
Prosecutors, in deciding to charge Tillman and McCloud as adults, took into consideration the brutality of the crimes and the vulnerability of the victims. Wilford (Frenchie) Hamilton, 61, wore a bright red beret and was a common sight on Pontiac streets. He was found bloody and unconscious behind a Pontiac hospital and died later.
Lee Hoffman, 65, once studied law, but years of alcoholism took its toll, and he, too, lived in Pontiac’s streets and alleyways. He was found beaten and comatose in a small park off Saginaw. Like Hamilton, he died later in a hospital without ever regaining consciousness.
Tillman has, from the beginning, denied involvement in the killings, but admits that he was one of a group of teens who savagely beat Anthony Pace, a warehouse manager at the Salvation Army in Pontiac. Pace, who suffered broken ribs, head injuries and a broken nose, testified at trial that he was certain the teens intended to kill him.
Police speculate the attacks were fueled by machismo, marijuana and alcohol.
“I don’t know why we did it,” Tillman told the Free Press. “I didn’t want anybody to think I was weak. I wanted to fit in.”
‘Man, I messed up’
In prison interviews last month, neither Tillman nor McCloud seemed able to comprehend that their futures hold little but gray concrete walls and high fences.
“Man, I messed up. I didn’t even get to see high school,” Tillman said in a small conference room at the Thumb Correctional Facility.
In the two months since he’s been in prison, he’s gotten a job sweeping floors for 84 cents a day. He is on a waiting list to start classes for his GED. The tough-guy bravado of the streets is gone. He is studying Islam, attending prayer sessions and steering clear of other inmates.
Tillman said his good days are when his mother, Darlena Tillman, sends him a letter, or he gets to talk to one of his sisters on the phone. “I think about them all the time,” he said.
McCloud, now 16, is stocky and speaks slowly, possibly because of medication he is on for depression and mood swings. He has the remnants of a black eye from a brawl with fellow inmates. Like Tillman, he is trying to grasp that life, as he knew it, has ended.
“I think, like, man, no prom, no driver’s license, no going out on dates,” McCloud said. He has had no visitors. His mother, Kim Hazard, a single mother with seven children, said she is overwhelmed. His father has been in prison since 2000 on a rape charge.
Hazard said she regrets urging her son to decline the second-degree murder plea. “It’s a bitter pill,” she said.
Horrific youth crimes
The Tillman and McCloud case underscores a national debate taking place in courts and state capitals, including Lansing: how best to handle youths as young as 14 when they commit horrific crimes. For most of the 20th Century, laws held children to a different standard than adults, recognizing that they are influenced by peers and don’t always fathom the consequences of their actions. At the crux of the debate is weighing rehabilitation against the need to protect public safety.
Michigan currently allows children of any age to be charged as adults at the discretion of the prosecutor.
“It is a terrible waste to send 14-year-olds to prison for life,” said visiting Oakland County Circuit Judge Steven Andrews, who presided over the Tillman and McCloud trial. He said he reluctantly sent both boys to mandatory life in prison as he was required to by law. Both boys turned down the plea agreements offered by prosecutors.
“It is a tragedy any way you look at it,” the judge said.
When convicting McCloud and Tillman in November, some jurors wept, including one who was crying so hard the judge had to halt the process for a moment.
In jury selection last week for the third trial of Jerome Hamilton, who was 15 when he was arrested for first-degree murder in the shooting death of a Rib Rack restaraunt manager, some jurors were dismissed because they said they could not, in good conscience, convict a teen as an adult.
But some experts say some kids are just too dangerous to ever walk free.
“It is our position that for some juveniles, a life sentence is appropriate,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif., crime victims’ advocacy group.
Lawmakers around the U.S. are rethinking mandatory life sentences for juveniles.
Up until the late 1980s, almost all convicted defendants 17 and younger in the U.S. were sentenced to juvenile facilities that emphasized rehabilitation. But by the early 1990s, states were passing get-tough-on-young-offenders legislation as a reaction to an increase in teen crime.
Between 1992 and 1995, 40 states passed laws that made it easier to send juvenile offenders to prison for life. Michigan, with its 1988 law already in place, toughened it even more in 1996, requiring all juveniles 14 and older to be sentenced as adults if convicted as adults.
Critics of that law note that, in the years since, crime rates among young offenders have declined. They also point out that a lmost half of all teen offenders serving time for first-degree murder accompanied adults who did the actual killing.
Michigan Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor, introduced a package of bills in 2009 that would prohibit sentencing juveniles to life without parole. A similar package passed the state House in 2008 but was never voted on by the Senate. The current proposal is now being reviewed by committee. Brater wants Michigan lawmakers to take into account the impulsiveness of young teens and their susceptibility to peer pressure.
“It’s just bad public policy for a lot of different reasons,” she said.