The first of three men who were teenagers when they were found guilty of murdering a fellow Carl Junction student in 1987 has been released from incarceration, and the mother of the victim is urging the community to give him a fair chance to prove himself.
Ronald Clements walked out of a Missouri prison last month and returned to this area. Theron (Pete) Reed Roland II is slated for release in August and James Hardy for release in 2022, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.
All three were 17-year-old Carl Junction High School students who beat to death classmate Steven Newberry, 19, with baseball bats on Dec. 6, 1987.
Hardy pleaded guilty to a first-degree murder charge in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table, and Roland and Clements were found guilty of first-degree murder during trials. An appellate court later reversed Clements’ original conviction, and he was retried and again found guilty. All three were sentenced to life without parole.
Marlys Horn, Newberry’s mother, said last week she is “apprehensive” but added that she wanted Clements to have a chance at a new life upon release.
“I don’t really want them harassed,” she said. “If this is going to happen, they ought to be given a fair (chance). ... You have to be fair.”
She said later: “I really think that is the best thing to do; the community has to accept that. If I can show I can accept it, there is no reason for anybody else not to. If I can live with it, certainly they can too.”
Horn said she did not oppose the parole of Clements but said that was only because she was resigned to the fact that he was going to be released.
Clements could not be reached for comment, but speaking through an attorney, Roland said in a statement: “I am thankful for my family, friends and all the various organizations that have helped me and many others earn a second chance at life outside of prison. I am mindful of my past and it is humbling to have experienced the forgiveness and mercy that I have received from people. I know readjusting will be a challenge, but I have (a) great support system and look forward to the opportunity.”
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile homicide offenders was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, arguing that minors are different from adults for sentencing purposes. Adults can still be sentenced to life in prison without parole, as juveniles can still be under Missouri law if the case meets more restrictive circumstances.
The Supreme Court in 2016 declared its earlier ruling retroactive, affecting those already in prison.
The court cited research showing that the brains of adolescents are still developing, making them susceptible to peer pressure and more likely to commit reckless acts without considering the long-term consequences. To punish those younger than 18 with the same severity as adults and to then make those sentences mandatory — taking away any discretion to weigh each offender individually — fails to consider that difference or the potential for rehabilitation, the court said in determining that no-release sentences for minors are unconstitutional for all but the rare juvenile whose crimes reflect “permanent incorrigibility.”
At the time, 94 inmates in Missouri were serving life without parole for murders committed while they were younger than 18. Many who sought immediate release were denied it, and the state was challenged by the MacArthur Justice Center, which went to court over the issue.
Amy Breihan, an attorney and co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis, said sentencing juveniles to jail for life without parole “ignores all the mitigating factors of youth.” Under a measure signed into law by former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a range of terms is now available in first-degree murder cases involving juveniles: life without parole, life with parole eligibility or a sentence of 30 to 40 years. To impose life without parole, a jury must unanimously agree that prosecutors have proved aggravating factors, such as torture of the victim.
All Missouri inmates already doing time for first-degree murder committed as juveniles had to serve at least 25 years before getting a parole hearing.
Karen Pojmann, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Corrections, said that the changes did not grant those in prison automatic parole but only stated they were eligible for it.
She also said that before anyone is released on parole, they must be found at low risk to reoffend. As part of the process, those being released receive a parole officer who works with them on reintegrating into society and can provide resources ranging from help finding a job to counseling.
Breihan said the adults when they are released should not be seen as a threat and are “not the same people who walked into DOC 30 years ago. ... Even kids who commit very serious crimes are capable of change.”
“I sure hope she is right,” Horn said. “I do. ... I hope she is right.”
Breihan said her firm worked on both the Clements and Roland cases and that both men subsequently received the equivalent of a high school diploma.
Pojmann said of Clements, “He was the leader of Jefftown Productions,” which made public service videos, among other things, including suicide prevention and anti-bullying videos. He taught the impact of crime on victims classes to other offenders,” and he participated in other aspects of DOC’s restorative justice initiatives in order to help give back to the community.
“He did all the things we want people to do when they are incarcerated,” Pojmann said.
For her part, Horn said she remains skeptical of arguments about brain development in minors and added: “I’m apprehensive, but on the other hand, we have to accept what’s going to happen.”
“I really have misgiving about them getting out,” she said, believing the state of Missouri, not the federal courts, is best equipped to assess sentences for juveniles who commit murder or other serious crimes.
She also said she believes the community has a right to know when someone who has committed a serious crime is released, adding of the murder of her son: “It didn’t just hurt our family, it hurt the community.”
While she went to the parole hearings and did not object to the release dates, she said that is because there was no point in objecting:
“I think it is going to happen. ... It is not up to me. I don’t fight things I can’t do anything about.”
She said her point in attending the parole hearings was to make sure her son was remembered.
“All I talked about was Steven,” she said. “I just didn’t want them to forget there is a victim.”