After Decades in Prison, Should Adults Convicted as Teens Get a Second Chance? A Growing Number of State Laws Say Yes
Second in a three-part series on a teenager with a tumultuous childhood who was sent to die in prison, and where his life would lead. The following narrative was compiled from interviews and court records.
Sylvia A. Harvey Feb 06, 2023
This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice. Read Part One of the series here.
There was, understandably, no sleeping the night before. So when 5 a.m. arrived, Cordell Miller was eager to rise. Wearing his bright orange institutional shorts, he brushed his teeth and performed the customary ablution.
Next, he woke the other men on his unit at the D.C. Central Detention Facility, to kneel on colorful rugs in prayer. Miller converted to Islam a decade into his 97-year-to-life sentence. It was a time when the teen sent to die in prison desperately sought meaning.
He was 49 now and had spent 30 years locked up. On this day, Jan. 21, 2022, prayer was essential. Miller had to prove to Superior Court Judge Craig Iscoe of the District of Columbia that he was far from his 17-year-old self — the one charged with a triple homicide resulting from a drug dispute. It was Miller’s second time going in front of Judge Iscoe.
“What could I possibly say that would convince him that I should be released?” Miller asked himself.
COVID-19 complicated the already-Herculean task ahead. With the virus tearing through the jail where he was being housed at the time, his “re-sentencing” hearing would be held on Zoom. Miller’s friends, family, and supporters would not be filling the courtroom benches, but instead, appear in 40 thumbnail images on a flat screen.
Miller, brown-skinned, bald, and sporting a carefully lined salt-and-pepper beard, was too nervous to smile. But he listened intently, his hands folded in front of him as both sides presented their positions to Judge Iscoe about whether he should be eligible for imminent release.
For decades, there’s been little hope for those sentenced to life in prison in the U.S. But “second look” laws in the nation’s capital, California, Washington, Delaware, Florida, Oregon, and Michigan have changed the prospects for adults such as Miller, some of whom were charged with crimes in their youth — even serious and violent offenses.
Baltimore, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Prince George’s County, and Brooklyn launched sentencing review units to correct excessive and disproportionate sentences.
Washington, D.C.’s Second Look Amendment Act became law in April 2021. It allows incarcerated people who were convicted before age 25 and have served at least 15 years of their sentence to appeal to a judge for resentencing. The law expands 2017 legislation by extending the age cutoff from 18 to 25, and reducing the required time served in prison from 20 years to 15.
Still, achieving freedom is no small feat. Defendants have to illustrate that they aren’t a danger to society and that a new sentence would be in the “interest of justice.” They must show they’ve been rehabilitated in prison, kept a clean disciplinary record, and provide statements from supporters. Their attorneys must effectively counter arguments from victims and prosecutors.
Before ruling, judges in Washington, D.C., must also consider something that sets these cases apart from more typical parole and resentencing decisions: “The diminished culpability of juveniles and people under age 25, as compared to that of adults, and the hallmark features of youth.” Those features include “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences, which counsel against sentencing them to lengthy terms in prison, despite the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime.”
Miller is one of more than 500 people eligible for resentencing under the D.C. law. According to the Second Look Project—an advocacy group that seeks relief from “extreme sentences”—under the recent iteration of the law, judges have ruled on approximately 67 such cases. Of those, 49 petitioners have been released on supervised probation.
Since the initial 2017 legislation was passed, a total of 145 cases have been decided, and 115 adults were granted release.
James Zeigler, founder and executive director of Second Look Project, describes the law as making D.C. “a more just and equitable place, and to try and remediate the mistakes of our overly punitive past.”
Federal prosecutors have argued the opposite. They say laws like these free “dangerous criminals” and deny victims a “sense of finality.” Describing the second look law in 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia said it “ignores how painful this process is for victims and will drastically increase the number of victims who must be re-traumatized.”
Prosecutors stated in a press release that it would make more than “500 violent criminals (including many rapists and murderers) immediately eligible for early release.” The prosecutors singled out judges’ ability under the then-pending legislation to release someone “despite the ‘brutality or coldblooded’ nature of the offense.”
‘An entirely different person’
At Miller’s January hearing, Safa Ansari-Bayegan, one of his court-appointed attorneys, presented first. Without minimizing Miller’s actions or the harm he caused, she told the court why — after serving 30 years behind bars — he is an ideal candidate for release.
“He’s an entirely different person today before the court, nearly 50 years old, than the misguided 17-year-old who took the lives of John Huff, Lester Cowen, and Adrienne Edmonds, and who also recognizes that he caused a lifetime of pain to their loved ones,” she said. Miller has channeled his “deep regret and his remorse into bettering himself and bettering those around him.”
Marc Howard, a professor of government and law at Georgetown University, where he directs the Prisons and Justice Initiative, described Miller as “extraordinary,” and “a committed leader.” Miller attended one of Howard’s classes in the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program, a class for incarcerated individuals and Georgetown students. Howard told Judge Iscoe that he’d happily offer Miller employment, would welcome him into his home, and introduce him to his wife and children.
Miller’s legal team also presented a psychiatric evaluation, letters, and additional witness testimony that drive home the point: He doesn’t pose a future danger to society.
Deputy District Attorney Pamela Satterfield, however, offered a thunderous rebuttal. Recalling prior testimony from a relative of one of the victims, she said they would be “horrified” that Miller wanted to get out early.
Five years earlier, the prosecution noted that Miller received a 37-year sentence reduction under a Supreme Court ruling that found juvenile life-without-parole sentences to be unconstitutional. That was more than enough relief, Satterfield said: He could still be released before he turned 80.
“Now we’re getting down to 11 years per human being, and we just think that further reduction is not in the interest of justice in this case,” she added.
Satterfield also noted a different danger: 41 months that had been tacked onto Miller’s life sentence in 1996.
Context is important for understanding that crime, his attorneys argue: At the time, his original offense had prompted several retaliatory death threats. Miller was stabbed in his head and shoulder by associates of his victims, according to court reports, and one of his co-defendants was murdered by a victim’s nephew. Then in 2007, a prisoner threatened to kill him. In a fight that followed, Miller stabbed the man.
Public safety arguments to keep people with lengthy terms locked up routinely challenge sentencing relief efforts in courts and legislatures. Lawmakers in at least 25 states have introduced Second-Look-style bills like the one in D.C., but have been unable to get them passed.