PETERSBURG, VA (WWBT) - They committed murder as teens, but hundreds of violent juvenile offenders across the country could be eligible to have their life sentences reconsidered.
The Supreme Court decision affects 16 cases in Virginia, including that of Beltway sniper Lee Boyd Malvo and a serial rapist who murdered a woman in Petersburg.
The Supreme Court is clear - juveniles are not to be treated like adults.
The court decided in 2005 teen killers can't be put to death. Earlier this year, justices ruled judges have to consider a sentence other than life in prison before deciding a teen's fate. The ruling is from Montogomery v. Louisiana.
Justices also decided it's retroactive, meaning hundreds of people convicted as teens of capital murder sitting in prison right now can have their sentences reviewed.
Hope Denise Hall was a fighter all her life - from beating double pneumonia at age 3 to kidney cancer at age 9. She graduated with honors from Virginia State University and got her first job in TV at NBC12.
"She was caring and sweet and quiet, didn't bother anybody," said Hope's mother, Carol Sievers.
Sievers says Hope wanted to be the journalist telling stories, not the face of a brutal crime in Petersburg from 1994.
"Cutting somebody's throat three times. Stabbing them from head to toe. Repeatedly."
Hope was stabbed 15 times. She was raped and left to bleed to death on the floor of her Petersburg area apartment.
At the time of her death, Hope worked for NBC12. Her killer had randomly knocked on her door and asked for a glass of water. He was 16-year-old Shermaine Ali Johnson.
Johnson was already serving a 100-year sentence for the violent rapes of two other women in Virginia when DNA tied him to Hope's murder. He was on death row by age 19.
"Oh, he was young, [some people say] that's not an excuse because the majority of the youth in this country don't even do anything like that," said Sievers.
Over the last 22 years, Sievers has watched Johnson go through two trials. She seen his death sentence turned into life in prison by the Supreme Court. Now the high court is requiring another look at that sentence.
"As a survivor, you think the court system is for you and there's a fair and balance of that decision-making process. We would hope that would continue to be the case, but for me it's like, enough already," said Sievers.
Johnson is now 38 years old. His attorneys declined our offer for an interview, but tell me he "is entitled to benefit" from the Supreme Court's decision. They say he's ready for his release.
But NBC12 legal analyst and defense attorney Steven Benjamin says the high court's decision does not mean hundreds of violent offenders will be getting out of jail.
"What we don't want is anybody to have a sense that the sky is falling and that a whole bunch of dangerous juvenile defendants are going to be released onto the streets. It's simply not going to happen," said Benjamin.
He stresses it's now clear juveniles convicted of capital murder cannot get an automatic life sentence.
"The Supreme Court has said juveniles are different from adults. Who you are and what you do at age 14 or 15 isn't necessarily who you would be as an adult. No matter how horrific your crime," said Benjamin.
The ruling means teens convicted of capital murder can either be given re-sentencing hearings or be made eligible for parole hearings. That gets tricky in Virginia, where parole is abolished.
We asked Benjamin: In these capital cases right now, can they consider those things? Can they deviate from automatic life in prison with teen capital murder defendants?
"That's the question," said Benjamin.
Attorney General Mark Herring is handling these 16 defendants on a case-by-case basis.
"Each case has its own unique factors that must be considered," said spokesperson Michael Kelly.
Beltway Sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, who terrorized D.C. on a killing spree at 17, is eligible to have his mandatory life-without-parole sentences in Virginia reviewed. His release is highly unlikely, because a Maryland judge did consider a sentence other than life.
Sievers served on Virginia's Parole board and is a longtime advocate for victim's rights. She says she's ready for Johnson to stop fighting the inevitable: a life behind bars.
"He's lived way beyond Hope's years on this earth," said Sievers.
Sievers still has hope the courts will strike a better balance - not just for violent criminals, but for the survivors left behind.
"This is not only for Hope, my daughter, but all the Hope Denise Halls that she represents that have been victimized," said Sievers.
Lawmakers may also need to take action to clarify sentencing guidelines in Virginia for future juvenile capital murder cases.
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