The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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February 4, 2014

High court rulings affected Joplin murder trial

Circuit Judge Gayle Crane’s hand was forced last week when jurors could not unanimously agree to assess Daniel Hartman life without parole for the murder of Jacob Wages.

She vacated the Jasper County jury’s verdict of guilty of first-degree murder and entered a verdict of guilty of second-degree murder in its place in light of recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Missouri Supreme Court.

Hartman, a Crips gang member from Tulsa, Okla., was just 17 on July 6, 2012, when Wages was killed in a home-invasion shooting in Joplin. A couple of weeks before the crime, the nation’s high court had struck down mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders in the case Miller v. Alabama.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that death sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. In June 2012, the court decided that automatic imposition of a lifetime behind bars also amounted to cruel and unusual punishment for people under 18.

The court did not ban life without parole as a sentencing option for young offenders. But, sentencing entities, whether juries or judges, must consider other factors, such as age and maturity level, before meting out such punishment, the court decided.

Missouri law provides just two sentencing options for a first-degree murder conviction: the death penalty or life without parole. That effectively has left just one option for defendants under 18.

According to The Associated Press, there are 83 people serving life terms in the state’s prison system who are directly affected by the Supreme Court ruling, and some have begun seeking redress.

The Legislature tried to fix the problem last year but was unable to get a bill passed. New legislation that could be brought to a vote this year would provide a range of lighter sentences for juveniles convicted of the offense, but also would retain life without parole and a 50-year minimum term as options for 16- and 17-year-olds.

The Missouri Supreme Court last year granted a new sentencing hearing to an inmate who was convicted as a juvenile in a murder in St. Louis. Laron Hart was sentenced to life without parole.

The state’s high court ruled in State v. Hart that a defendant under 18 who is convicted of first-degree murder should receive an additional hearing at which a number of mitigating factors may be considered to determine if such punishment is proper. If it cannot be deemed proper, the defendant should be found guilty of the lesser included offense of second-degree murder, the court said.

Crane cited the case in vacating the verdict of first-degree murder when jurors could not unanimously agree to give Hartman life without parole after the hearing prescribed by the state’s high court.

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