The Supreme Court Ruled That Sentences Like Hers Are Unconstitutional. Prosecutors Are Fighting To Keep Her Incarcerated.
Prosecutor Jessica Cooper of Oakland County, Michigan, has aggressively pursued life without the possibility of parole for children, critics say. She recommended the sentence for Barbara Hernández, who at 16 was a ‘slave’ to an abusive boyfriend who drew her into a plan that ended in murder.
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg Dec 09, 2019
In the spring of 1990, when Barbara Hernández was 16, her boyfriend, then 20, came up with a plan, according to court documents: She would bring a man to an abandoned house on the pretense of prostitution, and her boyfriend would rob him.
Hernández had met her boyfriend, James Hyde, when she was in junior high school. Over the course of their relationship, she said Hyde coerced her into sex work, routinely beat her, and repeatedly raped her, according to court documents.
When she brought 28-year-old James Cotaling to the house in Pontiac, Michigan, where she and Hyde had been staying, Hyde stabbed him about two dozen times. Hyde and Hernández were both convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court decided that mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles, like the one Hernández received, were unconstitutional. In 2016, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, it ruled that the decision applied retroactively. Hernández was one of about 2,000 people nationally who would be eligible for a new sentence.
But some prosecutors appear to be resisting the Court’s decision. So far, Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper has requested that the courts reimpose life without the possibility of parole in 43 out of 48 of the county’s juvenile lifer cases, according to an investigation by the Detroit Free Press. By asking for life without the possibility of parole in the majority of cases, youth advocates say Cooper has repeatedly ignored her obligations under Miller and Montgomery.
At the request of Cooper’s office, a circuit court judge sentenced Hernández, now 45, to life without the possibility of parole on Aug. 8.
“Not only are these policies and practices that she’s pursuing inhumane and cruel, but they also don’t follow what is in our view clear Supreme Court guidance,” said Udi Ofer, director of the Campaign for Smart Justice at the ACLU, which opposes juvenile life without the possibility of parole in all circumstances. “And that is, a sentence of life without parole for a crime committed by a child should be reserved for only the rarest of the rare circumstances.”
Cooper did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment, although she has previously spoken publicly about juvenile life without the possibility of parole. “We are talking about victims who were stabbed, drowned, bludgeoned and decapitated,” Cooper told Bridge, a local news outlet, in 2016. “Many of these crimes were totally random. They walked up to a car and decided to shoot in it. On and on and on and on. We are really talking about awful cases.”
The United States remains the only country that sentences children to life without the possibility of parole, say advocates. The Supreme Court has not yet found juvenile life without the possibility of parole unconstitutional, although 22 states and Washington, D.C. have banned the practice. Rather, the justices ruled that courts must attempt to distinguish between, “the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”
In August, prosecutor Tricia Dare invoked this language when she asked Judge Nanci Grant to sentence Hernández to life without the possibility of parole. The crime, Dare said, was “not an act involving transient immaturity,” according to a transcript of the proceeding.
Hernández’s supporters contest the prosecutor’s view and the judge’s ruling, pointing to her traumatic childhood, as well as Hyde’s alleged abuse. According to court filings, a 1991 psychological report said Hernández stayed with Hyde because “she was afraid of him and had no place to go.” In a psychiatric report detailed in the filings, Hernández was described as “essentially a slave” to Hyde.
“I didn’t want him to kill me and now I wish that he did,” said Hernández, according to the 1991 psychiatric report. “I’d be dead somewhere and I would be free from him. He wouldn’t hurt me no more. I didn’t want that man to die (crying).”
Hyde did not respond to a request for comment.
Hyde and Hernández were tried together, but with separate juries. Detective Ralph Monday testified that Hernández may have held down the victim, a statement he has since disavowed. According to his investigation, only Hyde attacked the victim, Monday wrote in an affidavit.