Associate Professor Kohler-Hausmann Wins Case Involving NY Parole Board

A man convicted of a murder that occurred when he was 16 years old will have a new chance for parole after the New York State Appellate Division ruled in his favor. The ruling concluded that the State Board of Parole failed to meaningfully consider his juvenile status at the time of the crime when examining his eligibility for parole over the course of the last 16 years. The petitioner, Dempsey Hawkins, is represented by Yale Law School Associate Professor Issa Kohler-Hausmann ’08 and her co-counsel Christopher Seeds, an attorney and PhD candidate at New York University.

The decision to grant Hawkins a new parole release hearing sets a legal precedent by extending the United States Supreme Court’s recent rulings in Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, and Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that the unique attributes of youth render a sentence of life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles, to the parole release context. Mr. Hawkins was sentenced to 22 years to life and has been reviewed for parole release nine times over the past 16 years, each time denied based almost exclusively on the basis of the crime of conviction.

Looking to the Graham, Miller, and Montgomery precedent, a plurality of the Appellate Division panel recognized that Mr. Hawkins must also receive a “meaningful opportunity for release” in which “youth and its attendant characteristics in relationship to the commission of the crime at issue” must be considered. As the plurality opinion stated, “[a] parole board is no more entitled to subject an offender to the penalty of life in prison in contravention of this rule than is a legislature or a sentencing court.”

The decision further states that the “Petitioner has expressed remorse for his conduct. The record is replete with recommendations from a wide variety of individuals who are apparently fully aware of the gravity and heinous nature of petitioner's criminal conduct, but nonetheless assert, based upon their experience and observations, that petitioner has been rehabilitated during the course of his lengthy confinement.” In Mr. Hawkins’s case, the Board failed to consider the significance of his youth at the time of the crime and its bearing on his responsibility, culpability, and capacity for rehabilitation.

“We agree with petitioner that, as a person serving a sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile, petitioner has a substantive constitutional right not to be punished with a life sentence if the crime reflects transient immaturity and that petitioner was denied his constitutional right to a meaningful opportunity for release when the Board failed to consider the significance of petitioner's youth and its attendant circumstances at the time of the commission of the crime,” states the decision.

New York State is one of only two states that automatically charges juveniles in adult criminal court. According to data complained by the Parole Hearing Data Project, there were more than 250 parole hearings in New York over the past two years for individuals who were 19 or younger when they entered prison and are serving an indeterminate life sentence.