A law that took effect this spring puts Ohio in line with US Supreme Court decisions against life sentences without parole for those who kill or commit other violent crimes as juveniles. But the families and victims of some of these underage offenders are angry.
In introducing Senate Bill 256 with Sen. Nathan Manning (R-North Ridgeville) in February 2020, former state senator Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering) explained it has a simple concept: to "bar life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders.”
The bill, now law, is similar to ones in 23 other states following rulings from the US Supreme Court over the last 15 years. Those rulings have banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles who didn't commit murder, have said judges need to consider a teenage killer's youth when imposing a sentence, and have noted research showing that young adult brains aren’t fully developed until the age of 25.
The law doesn’t guarantee a person sentenced to life for a crime committed when they were under 18 will get parole – but it opens the door.
Lynette Grace of Columbus wants that for Johnnie Bell, who was 15 in 1991 when he stabbed her as she tried to call the police to report he’d killed his mother. Bell was sentenced to 12½-to-40 years in prison in 1993.
Grace spoke to a Senate committee after the bill was introduced last year.
“After speaking with him and learning what happened that morning that he killed his mother, he cried more than I did and I found him to be remorseful and accountable for his actions – not the monster I expected him to be and I wasn’t the angry victim he expected me to be," Grace told the Senate Judiciary Committee in February 2020.
The son of Veronica Depould of Lakewood committed his crime at 17 and was sentenced to 18 years to life. At that Senate committee, Depould said she spoke for her son Michael and for other teens sentenced as adults.
“Many of them have turned their lives around. If Senate Bill 256 passes and becomes law, these men and women would have a chance to show the parole board that they deserve to come home," Depould said. "Please give them a chance.”
But not everyone believes that all teen killers should have that.
“My fear is that he could hurt somebody else. And boy, I’m just not sure that he deserves that chance," asid Cindy Leasure. Her 98-year-old aunt Margaret Douglas lived in Wadsworth when she was killed in 2018.
17-year-old Gavon Ramsey broke into Douglas’ home and strangled her, then sexually assaulted her body and stuffed it into a closet. That’s where it was when her niece Leasure found her.
“This was not a random, 'gosh, I’m going to go do this tonight'. He planned this. He planned it," said Leasure. "He knew she lived alone. He knew she didn’t drive. He knew she didn’t get visitors real often. And, really and truly, he had no intention of her being found as quickly as she was.”
Brian Kirk now lives in Florida but has been traveling to Ohio to advocate against the law. His 94-year-old grandmother Marie Delcastro was killed in her Niles home by 15-year-old Jacob Larosa in 2015. He was sentenced to life plus 31 years without parole.
“We found a lot of relief in October 2018 when my grandmother’s killer was sentenced to life without parole – not as a punishment for Jacob, the killer, but as a protection for our family and for other families," Kirk said.
Kirk has launched a website calling for Senate Bill 256 to be repealed.
A Statehouse protest he organized brought out Margaret Douglas’ family and a statement from a woman known as "Melissa", a Youngstown State University student raped repeatedly at gunpoint by 15-year-old Brandon Moore and 16-year-old Chaz Bunch in 2001. Moore was sentenced to 50 years in prison and Bunch to 49 years behind bars.
“Melissa is terrified of the possibility of these men being released. She worries they will come after her and her family, as they said they would. She also worries for future potential victims," Melissa's statement reads in part.
But the law’s supporters say it simply sets rules for the process of treating juveniles fairly following these court decisions that say they can’t be sentenced to life without parole.
“This bill does not create a 'get out of jail free' card, as it's often called. It does not create a right. It does not create automatic parole. It only creates a hearing," said former Ohio Supreme Court justice Evelyn Stratton.
And Stratton said advocating for the law to be repealed won’t help.
“It's sort of a vain act because if you get rid of this bill, you say, 'OK, I want to get rid of this bill and get rid of this' - it doesn't get rid of the right to parole hearing. It just takes the standards away," And if that happened, she said, "it's up to what the parole board wants to do.”
The law is retroactive and says a minor is eligible for parole after no longer than 18 years in prison for non-homicide crimes, and no more than 25 to 30 years for crimes involving murder.
But there’s an exception for killers of three or more people, and a provision that says TJ Lane, who killed three people and injured three others in a shooting at Chardon High School in 2012 when he was 17, won’t be released.
(NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify some US Supreme Court rulings that have allowed juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to life without parole.)