ST. LOUIS (AP) - A 21-year-old man ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison without parole for a deadly 2009 home invasion returned to court Monday for a new sentencing hearing prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court ban on automatic life sentences for juveniles.
Ledale Nathan Jr. was 16 when he and an accomplice burglarized a home on Oct. 5, 2009, and began shooting. An off-duty police officer and a firefighter were injured, and 34-year-old Gina Stallis was killed. The police officer's injuries kept her from returning to the job.
Both Nathan and 24-year-old Mario Coleman received life sentences. But that was before a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that automatic life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Coleman's sentence was not affected by the ruling.
Nathan's case, though, is among 84 in Missouri thrown into limbo by the ruling. Legal experts estimate that another 2,500 other inmates nationwide fall into the same category.
In July 2013, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered new sentencing hearings for both Nathan and Laron Hart, who was 17 when he was charged in a separate 2010 homicide. In Missouri, the punishment for first-degree murder is either death or life without parole. Juveniles cannot be sentenced to death.
State lawmakers have twice sought to change Missouri's sentencing laws, without success, since the federal court ruling. A proposal setting the punishment for first-degree murder for defendants 16 and older at either life without parole or a 50-year minimum was approved by a state Senate panel in March but failed to further advance.
The same measure would have set the penalty for offenders younger than 16 at either life without parole or a 35-year minimum.
St Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce has said that the uncertainty leaves prosecutors in a bind when it comes to conveying possible sentencing outcomes to victims' families.
"When a murder victim's family comes into the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's office, they want to know how much time a defendant could spend in prison," Joyce wrote in a May 2013 op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as state lawmakers first sought to respond to the Supreme Court ruling. "A new law would give grieving families devastated by violence the certainty that they deserve."
A Joyce spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press on Monday afternoon. According to Joyce's office, nearly half of the more than 80 former juvenile defendants potentially facing new sentencing hearings were 16 or younger.
In Nathan's trial, a city jury will first determine whether the evidence in his case again warrants a sentence of life without parole. Their deliberations must now include the defendant's age and maturity level, the nature of the crime and other evidence. If the jury determines that Nathan does not deserve a life sentence, he will be convicted of second-degree murder and serve a prison sentence of between 10 and 30 years.
Circuit Judge Robert Dierker told potential jurors on Monday that he expects the hearing to last most of this week.