Idaho teens serving life prison sentences

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — Eldon Gale Samuel III is housed in an individual cell at the Kootenai County Jail.

The 14-year-old is accused of the March 24 deaths of his father, Eldon G. Samuel, Jr., 46, and his younger brother, Jonathan, 13.

Police investigators say Samuel confessed to using multiple weapons in the killings. The Coeur d’Alene boy is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and is being tried for the crimes as an adult.

State statute requires that Samuel be segregated from the rest of the adult prison population. Every day he is allotted one hour of time outside his cell for exercise and showering.

If the pale-skinned, skinny Samuel is found guilty of the killings, he could receive the same sentence as four other Idaho youths previously convicted as adults for murder: life in prison without parole.

The Coeur d’Alene Press reported that Idaho is one of four states that ban defendants from using insanity as a criminal defense.

Ethan Windom lived alone with his mother, Judith, in Boise and in 2006 was diagnosed as suffering from anxiety and a major depressive disorder. The then 16-year-old was, according to court documents, fascinated by serial killers and modeled his day-to-day life after the protagonist of the movie ‘American Psycho.’

On Jan. 24, 2007, Windom experienced a strong urge to kill, and took five times his normal dose of anti-anxiety medication. According to court documents, he first considered finding “bums” to kill, but was afraid his mom would stop him.

Instead of finding “bums,” the 17-year-old fashioned a club out of weights and a dumbbell. With the improvised club and two knives in hand, he went into his mother’s bedroom and killed her.

Shortly after the murder, Windom was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. The charge was eventually changed to second-degree murder in exchange for a guilty plea.

During sentencing remarks in Windom’s trial, Ada County District Judge Cheri Copsey said she had considered the nature of the offense, the teen’s mental health issues, his youth and lack of criminal record prior to issuing her decision.

“And I have to say it is the most difficult case I have ever had,” Copsey said. “Ever. It will haunt me forever. Not just the pictures of the crime scene and what you did to your mom, but the entirety of the case.”

Ultimately, according to court documents, Copsey determined that imposing a fixed life sentence was “appropriate” given the “brutal” and “heinous” nature of the murder.

In September 2003, Diane and Alan Scott Johnson were shot to death with a high-powered rifle in their home in Bellevue, a town in central Idaho. A month later, their daughter, 16-year-old Sarah Johnson, was arrested and charged with the murders. After a jury trial, Johnson was found guilty of both first-degree murders and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Cassie Jo Stoddart, 17, was stabbed to death in 2006 at a Pocatello home where she was house-sitting. Five days later, 16-year-olds Brian Draper and Torey Adamcik were arrested and charged with the murders. The teens video-taped themselves planning the crime. They were both found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“Fixed life is — it is one of the harshest sentences that we can hand down and it’s reserved only for those offenses that are so egregious that it demands an exceptionally high measure of retribution, or that the evidence indicates that the offender cannot successfully be monitored in society to reduce the risk to those who come in contact with him, and that imprisonment until death is the only way to ensure that we are protecting society,” Copsey said.

Idaho State Appellate Public Defender Sara Thomas said defending children who are facing life in prison is difficult. Thomas worked on appeal cases for two of the Idaho youths serving life without parole for murder.

“The pressure is much higher than you experience with the average case because you are dealing with someone who is a kid,” Thomas said. “They (cases involving minors) keep you up at night. You know they are never going to have a life unless you do something about it.”

Windom and each of the three other Idaho children sentenced to life without parole were sent to adult prisons in Boise, Pocatello and Orofino. Although they were charged as adults, the prisons keep the children segregated from the rest of the adult population until they are legally considered adults.

“You watch them grow up and change,” Thomas said. “It can be difficult to watch because sometimes they do turn into different people. It’s not like they stay who they were when they were sentenced.”

With that change in mind, Thomas said courts throughout the nation are beginning to recognize the development of youths into adults when imposing life sentences.

In the 2012 United States Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama, the court ruled that imposing mandatory life without parole sentences on minors was unconstitutional, with the exception of murder. When writing the majority opinion on the case, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that these sentences do not take into account matters such as immaturity, the impulsiveness of youth, and the family life of the child who “cannot usually extricate himself – no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”

“And finally, this mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it,” Kagan wrote.

The Idaho Attorney General’s office opposed the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, primarily because the state’s supreme court had just issued a ruling affirming an imposed life sentence for Windom.

But for public defenders like Thomas, the Miller v. Alabama ruling is the first step in recognizing that children change, even in cases where the child commits murder.

“When you write these kids off like that, you’re making the presumption that they can never safely live in society,” Thomas said. “When you’re dealing with a child, that’s a pretty big presumption to make.”

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