Written by Charles Selby
Charles Selby was a newly minted 18-year-old in 1986 when he was stripped of his potential for rehabilitation and then condemned to die in prison for his brain’s inability to fully develop on the State and Federal government’s schedule. That’s not to say he shouldn’t have been incarcerated for the homicide he committed as a teenagers; it’s just that the mere 192-hour distinction between what would’ve been his classification as a juvenile and his current identity as an adult is fundamentally unfair because it’s highly unlikely that he’d miraculously achieved a level of adulthood during those 192 hours. The Court’s own records concluded that at the time of the offense Charles was a “very troubled young man who is quite impulsive, immature, and irresponsible.”
It wasn’t until the 2012 United States Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, that Charles gained insight in to his character development; at least a starting point from which to introspect about the transient juvenile character traits (impulsive, immature, and irresponsible) that made him capable of making such a devastating, permanent decision in a temporary, teenage situation. The Miller case is the conclusion of a trilogy of case law creating the now known Juvenile Lifer Law. The gist of this well known, quite controversial law is the discovery of brain science that supports the conclusion that the characteristics of youth indicate that teenage homicide offenders may be less morally culpable than adults, and why. These identity markers reveal: (1) an underdeveloped sense of responsibility and lack of maturity, which leads to impulsivity, recklessness, and risk-taking; (2) children’s vulnerability to outside pressure and negative influences, which include their peers and family, as well as limited control over their environment and their lack of ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings; and (3) the fact that children’s characters are not fully formed, their traits are not as fixed as those of adults, and their actions are not as likely to indicate depravity that is irretrievable.
To reach this scientifically sound, but politically divided conclusion, the Court relied on various neuroscientific reports, similar to, and including, “Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty,” by Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth S. Scott. Dr. Steinberg’s report mainly dealt with teenagers under age 18. Within the trilogy of cases, however, empirical evidence was proffered to establish that the brain doesn’t fully develop until a person’s mid-twenties. The Court even agreed that the qualities distinguishing juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18 as if youth runs into the proverbial Chinese Wall and full maturity suddenly rains. But despite the plethora of expert testimony and wisdom available, the Court declared that a teenager’s 18th birthday marks the distinction between a juvenile and an adult–a number simply provided by Miller’s lawyer when asked by the Court for an age number in which to draw the line. Consequently, those words arbitrarily issued death to Charles and many other 18-year-olds who present the same youthful character traits, or worse, as those under age 18.
Thus, the dichotomy of the Miller trilogy essentially gave with one hand while it took with the other. This illusionary maneuver made it so that although some homicide offenders like Charles and their victims (family members of the deceased remain victims, too) may finally understand what led to the tragic choices made as teenagers, constitutionally protected sentencing mercy is still only issued as a birthright to the chosen. Not unexpectedly, though, several States have exercised their duty to prevent these injustices by indiscriminately extending Miller’s sentence protection to all qualifying teenagers (Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and Washington). In fact, during an appellate challenge of this absurd “goldticket” style of the Miller trilogy justice, the same Dr. Laurence Steinberg from the Miller case recently testified in Cruz v. United States, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52924, stating that he is absolutely certain that there is no distinction between 17 and 18-year-olds when it comes to their transient character traits and having undeveloped brains.
Willing to capitulate to the juvenile brain science, case law, and legislative enactments analyzing it, yet unwilling to be the required maverick in Michigan to align its judiciary and legislative branches with themselves and juvenile brain science, Charles’ sentencing judge in Jackson County, Michigan, recently opined that Charles does raise a compelling position pertaining to the short period of time elapsed between his classification as a juvenile and an adult (192 hrs), and that there are marginal, if any difference between a 17 year-old and a newly minted 18-year-old; but this is not a distinction, nor an expansion for this Court to make at this time.
Until justice truly prevails on this issue in Michigan, and Nationwide, teenager homicide offenders under age 18 are currently forced to undergo a case-by-case analysis to determine the rare exclusions from Miller’s sentencing protection (those deserving of death in prison due to incorrigibility). However, in Michigan and many other States, the judicial doors are held shut to all 18-year-olds seeking a case-by-case analysis to demonstrate the same, if not worse, youthful character traits as those under age 18 (Charles, childhood and development were certainly far more traumatic than most 17-year-olds currently being resentenced under Miller). This exclusion is done under the scientifically baseless presumption that chronological age alone is the measuring stick of maturity–a factor that obviously defies common sense and what experience has taught every parent. This is especially more alarming when this dualistic justice is based solely on political partisanship and fiscal budgeting; also, when it sharply defies the resolution of controlling State and Federal law where cases, involving inherently subjective inquiries into medical and psychological issues must be decided on a case-by-case basis, because what may seem a trivial fuction for most people may be subjectively important to some, depending on the relationship of that function to the person’s life. Comporting with the rationale for a case-by-case analysis, it’s naturally presumed that a teenager’s underdeveloped portion of brain (the prefrontal cortex circuitry), responsible for contolling emotional and cognitive responses to situations, equally fails the 18-year-old in life-effecting ways when homicide is the end result of a teenager’s inability to think, rationalize, and control his thoughts as an adult.
Michigan law makers and judiciary memebers are not ignorant of, nor reject, the empirical, scientific evidence absolving the illusionary distinction between 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds. Michigan does accept it; it just capriciously exercises its application of the juvenile brain science, which has allowed its Court of Appeals and its legislators to remain indecisive about the definitive age of a juvenile and the application of the brain science to those over age 18. For example, the age of majority in Michigan was 21 (that’s the age one becomes an adult). That age wasn’t lowered to18 until 1971 (MCL 722.52); which was the result of a political campaign endorsed by Senator Edward Kennedy and those in his circle to enable teenagers to vote. You see, there was a huge public outcry during the Vietnam War about the government drafting 18-year-olds to fight but giving them no say in whether their country went to war. The argument was, “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” It was no secret that lowering the age to vote from 21 to 18 would ralley the votes of scared and easily influential teenagers to manipulate the presidency election and so on … when necessary. However, despite the government still utilizing the age of majority to exploit teenage votes, Michigan recognizes exception to the “age of majority” act and considers adjudicate delinquents as juveniles until age 21 (MCL 712A.2a). It also classifies a teenager still in high school until age 19.5 year as a child (MCL 722.3 (1)), referencing MCL 552.605b (2)). And, for good reason, persons under age 21are prohibited from drinking and purchasing alcohol (MCL 436.1109 (6)). Persons under age 21 are even prohibited from entering a gambling casino because they can’t be trusted to not illegally consume the free alcohol provided to patrons (MCL 432.209). Also, persons under age 21are prohibitted from renting a car (1976 Mich AG LEXIS 91), and from purchasing both regular and electronic cigarettes (cite currently unknown). And if these inconsistencies between the classification of juveniles and adults weren’t enough, the Michigan Court of Appeals has actually refused to afford Miller’s sentencing protection to those other than its intended 1st degree homicide offenders (People v Johnson, 2019 Mich App LEXIS 3166), while Michigan legislators in sharp contrast apply the brain science of the Miller trilogy’s sentencing protection to Michigan’s Holmes Youthful Trainee Act (HYTA) (MCL 762.11-13), which is a second chance, criminal sentencing program for NONVIOLENT offenders up to age 26–far older than Charles’ 192 hours in question.
Michigan, now more than ever, needs its Supreme Court to reign in the reckless disregard for the cruel and unusual punishment inflicted upon the teenagers under its jurisdiction. And it now has the opportunity to do so in a case pending before it. People v Robin Rick Manning, 2019 Mich. LEXIS 2320 (where it will be determining if Miller’s sentencing protection should be applied to 18-year-old defendants convicted of murder and sentenced to mandatory life without parole). Also in People v Charles Selby, 2019 Mich. LEXIS 2314 (where it will be determined if he is entitled to resentencing as a juvenile because, as-applied to him, due to his underdeveloped brain, he is a true exception to Miller’s impose bright line cutoff date, and, therefore the imposed non-parolable life sentence remains unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.)
Michigan’s Supreme Court Justices have the authority and courage to grasp the leash of this highly controversial legal challenge, which they’ve proven to be capable of doing in the past when outlawing racial segregation in Michigan’s public school system 85 years before the federal government had the courage to do it. See People v Bullock, 440 Mich 15, 29 (1992); ex rel Workman v. Detroit Bd. of Ed., 18 Mich 400, 408-410 (1869). Yes, it took courage for them to do it then, and it’s going require courage now. Because, although applying Miller’s sentencing protection to 18-year-olds would apply only to those teenagers who could actually meet the five required Miller factors outlined in People v Skinner, 2018 Mich LEXIS 1150, ***23-24, many law maker, prosecutors, and judges have erected impenetrable veils to justice under the absurd assertion that if the judicial gates were to open for 18-year-olds, then 19-year-olds and 20-year-olds would want it–there would be no end to extending justice on this issue. And, sadly, decisions about that concern are actually swayed by that irrational argument. Granted, the complexities of some legal analyses can require the brilliance of legal scholars, but that’s not remotely the case here. To withhold Miller’s sentencing protection from those over age 18 who suffer from the same transient, youthful character traits as those teenagers under age 18 is clearly reflected in the myopia of, “let’s says,” had Michigan’s white populous not extended equality to African Americans in public schools, or in general, for no other reason than doing so would have no logical end; meaning, before long, women would what the same rights, then Hispanics, Arabs, Homosexuals, and of course, God forbid, the Disabled (especially with the billions of dollars that has went in to providing equality to the Americans with disabilities in public places). Certainly nothing more than common sense and basic humanity solves this conundrum. But even if there were a lapse in judgment, our social mores have evolved enough in this area to know that although discrimination is permissible in this Country, it’s not right, and the American spirit within us impels us fix wrongs. It’s not enough to want to fix every other country’s problems while leaving our own closets in morbid disarray. That’s why no amount of legal jibberish should be able to persuade rational thinkers to tolerated the hypocrisy when world renowned expert neuroscientists are summoned to educate law makers and judiciary memebers–ignorant about the brain science and the transient juvenile character traits that inflict 18-year-olds–only to then be summarily ignored by the summoners for the sake of political agendas and career-securing decisions. Said another way, children aren’t supposed to fear the darkness when responsible adults are directing the path. Yet those children are stuffed in cages to die when so-called responsible adults reject the light provided by experts to righteously judge and rehabilitate teenagers.
Consequently, just a few months prior to committing the offense that led Charles Selby to being senteneced to die in prison, he was in the Jackson County Youth Center where counselors reported some really bad vibes about him (concerns that he would either hurt himself or someone else in his future). Apparently, THE WRITING WAS ON THE WALL…, but those concerns were merely apathetic observations. He was never provided counseling, nor was his mother informed or encouraged to get him any crisis counseling. Instead, he was released from custody shortly thereafter (60 days early on a 90-day sentence). That indifference resulted in the tragic loss of life. And then the Probation Department, in a written recommendation for the judge before sentencing Charles to die in prison, had the audacity to state:
“In many ways, [Selby] was a misfit who was ostracized from the large community around him, at home, at school, and in his neighborhood. He was routinely demonstrating numerous signs of being a sociopathic personality. Society and its institutions were not afforded the luxury of timely, meaningful intervention, prior to his involvement in the instant offense. He is, in many ways, a failure of society, and a reflection of society’s imperfections. Freedom, liberty and individuality must be practiced in a responsible and social constructive manner within the framework of our constitutional democracy and its social institution. He never learned or experienced that.”
Since that recommendation to his sentencing judge, Charles was written off as irretrievably depraved–a throwaway youth because nobody dared consider that he should’ve never been permitted to take a man life and destroy that family; that the system dropped the ball with his brokenness and nobody won. And now law makers and judiciary members want to ignore the simple truth that if he were incorrigible, then it would stand to reason that such signature traits would be written in the blood of continued acts of violence as he’s aged in prison over the decades. But Charles proffers that a careful review of his prison institutional file will reveal that he’s, in fact, lived a violence-free life since the homicide, which some people would consider a remarkable feat in a violent prison setting. The truth, however, is that he actually grew up to become a responsible man; his brain fully developed. And as for having chosen to rehabilitate himself when it wasn’t required of him or when the prison system wouldn’t assist with his endeavors to become a better man, well…that’s what a man does when he’s deeply remorseful for taking a human life, and the life-altering trajectory that he forced that family into. These, and many other, progressively developed character traits would not have occurred had Charles, at the time of the homicide, possessed an actual adulthood-level of maturity, which, according to Miller’s holding, is indicative of, or established by, irretrievable depravity.
Charles can most definitely be the poster child for the Miller-trilogy brain science, and he deserves to be resentenced accordingly; or in the alternative, his case should be remanded back to his trial judge to conduct a meaningful as-applied challenge where he is permitted the opportunity to rebut the presumption that he had, merely 192 hours into his “supposed” adulthood miraculously achieved a fully mature brain complete with impulse control, was non-risk seeking, and fully comprehend the consequences of all his actions, and therefore should not be accorded the right to be sentenced as a juvenile lifer.
In sum, Justice is not to be relative. It is not to be a concept. It is not to be sold or purchased. And it’s certainly not to be discriminately issued, especially in defiance of the information provided above. Therefore, the Michigan Supreme Court must intervene with its power to strike down unconstitutional applications of law. Particularly were the unconstitutional application of Miller’s cutoff date distinguishing juveniles from adults, as applied to Charles and the unique facts and circumstances of his case, soars to the pinnacle of injustice when rendering his 192 hours outside the umbrella of Miller’s sentencing protection.
Herein, Charles uses himself to place a face on a nationwide issue that plagues our country to the point of requiring a public outcry to both address and fix it.
To learn more about Charles, you can write him using snail mail or using Jpay.com or go to his fb at Charles Selby/NoExcuses
Source of featured image: The Conservation, Donald Tong, CC BY