Michigan Supreme Court rules victim restitution in juvenile life case

The case before the court concerned William Neilly, who, at 17 years old, was part of a group of four people that killed another teenager in an attempted armed robbery.

Michigan Supreme Court.

Michigan Supreme Court.

Convicted defendants given reprieves from life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed as teenagers can still be ordered to pay restitution to victims – even if it was not part of their original sentence — under a decision Monday from the Michigan Supreme Court.

The seven-member court issued a unanimous ruling regarding juvenile lifers who were re-sentenced after U.S. Supreme Court decisions struck down mandatory life without parole for teens.

The case before the Michigan Supreme Court concerned William Neilly, who, at 17 years old, was part of a group of four people that killed another teenager in an attempted armed robbery.

Neilly was convicted in 1993 of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit armed robbery and two counts of felony firearm. As was required at the time, Neilly was automatically sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. Restitution was not part of the sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions in 2012 and 2016 striking down automatic life-without-parole sentencing laws in Alabama and Louisiana and states like Michigan with similar statutes.

According to the facts as laid out in the Michigan Supreme Court opinion, the prosecutor agreed to a prison term of 35 to 60 years for Neilly’s resentencing. At the request of the victim’s mother, the court also added a payment of $14,895.78 to reimburse the family for funeral expenses.

Neilly challenged that as an unconstitutional ex post facto punishment added to his prison sentence 28 years after the crime and his initial sentencing. His attorneys’ legal brief filed in the case noted Michigan’s sentencing laws in the 1990s took into account a defendant’s ability to pay.

“It is manifestly unfair and unjust to subject juvenile lifers to more onerous restitution statutes at their resentencing hearings, many years later, than were in effect at the time of their original crime, conviction, and sentencing,” it said.

But in the opinion written by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Elizabeth Clement, the court held the primary purpose of restitution is not punishment.

“In enacting the restitution statutes, the Legislature intended to create a civil remedy,” she wrote. “Although the imposition of these statutes has some punitive effect, that effect is not sufficient to overcome the demonstrated legislative intent. Accordingly, the imposition of restitution is not punishment.”

The primary litigants – the Kalamazoo County Prosecutor and the State Appellate Defenders Office – were not available for comment Monday. Veteran prosecutor Timothy Baughman filed a brief in the case on behalf of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

“It may be in cases like this one where restitution wasn’t ordered previously, it gets ordered now,” he said. “…If they’re entitled to restitution, even if it wasn’t ordered originally, it should be ordered at any resentencing.”

Baughman, who is also a Wayne County assistant prosecutor, said he expects the decision will be invoked rarely, but it sets a significant precedent.

“The victims have a right to restitution and that needs to be protected,” he said.

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