CHICAGO — A man once sentenced to life in prison for murder as a teenager has won his freedom after serving 26 years behind bars — including a monthslong series of delays that kept him locked up during the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
LaRon Warren said he “almost broke down” as the judge reduced his sentence.
“I thanked the Creator. I said a silent prayer and thanked him,” Warren told the Tribune. He recalled his late mother, who advocated for sentencing reforms. “I know my mom was sitting beside the Creator rejoicing.”
Warren, 44, was convicted in the murder of Ebony Higgins, a pregnant teen who was shot dead on Easter Sunday in 1994. At the time, Warren was 17 and free on bail for a murder charge from the year before in what court documents describe as a drug deal gone bad.
Warren’s release is the result of an evolution in how the legal system thinks about young people who commit serious crimes such as murder.
Such prisoners may draw little sympathy outside of family and friends. But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles are eligible for life in prison only if a judge finds there is no chance of rehabilitation. Illinois’ highest court also drew a bright line last year, saying any sentence longer than 40 years is the functional equivalent of life in prison for a minor.
On Monday, Cook County Judge Arthur Hill reduced Warren’s sentence to the maximum 40 years, citing “strong evidence of the probability of rehabilitation.” Warren is eligible for day-for-day credit, meaning he only has to serve half of that time. So Hill’s ruling effectively paves the way for Warren’s release.
“I’m so thankful to have a second chance and to be able to prove that I’m worthy of this second chance, and I’m going to make the best out of this second chance,” Warren said. “There’s a whole ’nother chapter to be wrote, and it’ll be based on my success.”
The complexities of COVID-19 may slow down Warren one more time. He needs to be tested, possibly wait one to five days for results, and then travel to the Stateville Correctional Center to complete paperwork. Assistant Public Defender Mark Douglass said it’s “absurd” Warren’s release will be further delayed.
About 70 of the roughly 100 Illinois inmates once sentenced to life without parole as juveniles have been resentenced following the state and federal court rulings, according to Shobha Mahadev, a clinical associate professor at Northwestern University Law School’s Children and Family Justice Center. Most have received shorter sentences, some have been freed, and a handful have been resentenced to life in prison again, Mahadev said.
In Warren’s case, by the time he was convicted in Higgins’ death, he already had been found guilty of the 1993 drug-deal homicide. He got 34 years in prison for that case, and with day-for-day credit he has finished that sentence. But the Higgins case was his second murder conviction, meaning a life sentence was mandatory.
Warren was on the cusp of a March 19 resentencing hearing when COVID-19 shut down the court system for months. He had to wait out the delay in Cook County Jail, which battled a significant outbreak of the virus. As of Sunday, there were 32 jail detainees who had tested positive; that is down sharply from a few months ago, when hundreds of detainees were diagnosed. Seven who had tested positive died at local hospitals.
Warren got a resentencing hearing in July, and prosecutors submitted letters from Higgins’ mother and grandmother. They were the same statements presented in 1997, when Warren originally was sentenced to life in prison.
“At first, I wanted the defendant to get help,” Higgins’ mother wrote. “I thought because I am a child of God, this is what I should feel, but the more I found out about him, the angrier I got. … He needs to be punished for what he’s done. He robbed Ebony and her baby of their lives, he’s robbed me of my only child and grandchild, and my mother of her grandchild and great-grandchild.”
In limiting sentences for young defendants, courts have reasoned that juveniles are more vulnerable to peer pressure, have little power to lift themselves out of circumstances that are conducive to crime, and tend to act irrationally and without a full understanding of risk.
In his ruling, Hill noted that none of those applied to Warren, who had a healthy upbringing and good family relationships. And, Hill wrote, there was no evidence of any “impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
But Warren showed significant potential for rehabilitation, Hill noted, and his “ability to be returned to society as a useful, productive member.”
Northwestern’s Mahadev worried that delays in cases like that of Warren and others awaiting action still creates an urgent and dangerous matter during the pandemic.
“The slowdown of these proceedings has put them in line for potential illness and death,” she said.
But Mahadev said she was “relieved and hopeful” to see courts are taking seriously the expanding body of case law that has stretched from the U.S. Supreme Court to the Illinois Supreme Court and the state’s appellate courts.
Last year, the Illinois Supreme Court considered the case of Dimitri Buffer, who was convicted of a murder he committed at age 16 in The Bush neighborhood on the South Side.
Buffer contended that his 50-year sentence was unconstitutional, since such a lengthy term is the functional equivalent of life in prison. The state’s highest court agreed, ruling that anything longer than 40 years for a juvenile effectively amounts to a life sentence.
Last week, a Cook County judge resentenced Buffer, who’s now 27, to a 25-year term.
Another man highlighted in a June Tribune story, LaBron Neal, had his life sentence vacated in July. Neal was 17 and in a gang when he shot and killed teens Terrance Mitchell and James Austin Campbell at a Carbondale trailer park in 1996. Neal is at Stateville as his resentencing plays out.
As for Warren, he next plans to pursue a claim of innocence in the Higgins case. A 2016 appellate court decision cited affidavits from additional witnesses, not initially considered, that potentially could clear his name.
(Chicago Tribune’s Stacy St. Clair contributed to this report.)
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