The Tulsa County district attorney is calling for the Legislature to modify state law after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to expand the criteria required before courts can sentence minors to life without parole.
District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said the ruling could mean his office will ask a judge to reconsider the parole eligibility of Michael Bever, a teenager who along with a brother stabbed their parents and three siblings to death.
The jury that convicted Bever recommended five life sentences with the possibility of parole for the murders plus 28 years for the stabbing of his surviving sister. Six of the jurors wrote a letter to Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes that advocated for concurrent sentencing, which would have given Bever the chance for parole review and possible release in his mid-50s.
Holmes ordered that Bever serve all six sentences consecutively and did not offer an explanation for her decision. The Department of Corrections’ calculation of a life sentence at 45 years, made for the purpose of determining parole eligibility dates, means Bever has more than 200 years to serve before an actual chance for release.
But Kunzweiler said that “I have long stated that I do not believe that he should ever be released from prison based upon his role in the deaths of his family members. If there is a judicial path to reconsider his sentences, we will pursue it.
“Certainly based upon this ruling I believe the Oklahoma Legislature should enact legislation to correspond Oklahoma’s murder sentencing laws with the Supreme Court’s pronouncement.”
Bever’s trial attorney said the move, if pursued, would continue to go against the wishes of the jury and deemed the pronouncement an attempt to seek publicity for an already high-profile case.
In a 3-2 ruling, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Holmes’ decision to sentence Bever to five consecutive life terms in prison with parole possible for his role in the 2015 stabbing deaths of five of his family members at their Broken Arrow home and the attempted killing of a sister who survived.
Bever was 16 at the time of his arrest, making his case constitutionally ineligible for consideration of the death penalty.
At the time of his 2018 trial, the Oklahoma appellate court had determined — based at least partly on past U.S. Supreme Court decisions — that a defendant must be found “irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible” before a judge can consider life without parole for minors convicted of first-degree murder.
The jury did not find that Bever met that threshold.
However, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said in a U.S. Supreme Court opinion released last week in a Mississippi man’s case that a specific finding of “permanent incorrigibility” was not required as long as a court considered the person’s age as a mitigating factor.
Kavanaugh contended that the new opinion does not overrule the precedent the Supreme Court created in two previous cases related to minors and life without parole sentencing. Both of those rulings affirmed that states cannot impose mandatory life without parole sentences on minors found guilty of murder.
After the new ruling’s release, Kunzweiler expressed his view that it “clarified the standard” under which such minors should be evaluated during sentencing hearings. He said it was possible his office could use the ruling to ask for reconsideration of Bever’s sentence because his jurors were instructed that they needed to make a finding of permanent incorrigibility before they could consider recommending life without parole.
The Supreme Court has since declined a defense request to review the constitutionality of Bever’s sentences. But at least one Oklahoma appellate court judge wrote in a dissenting opinion that upholding his consecutive terms — despite the severity of the crimes — is clearly contrary to what jurors said they wanted.
Chief Public Defender Corbin Brewster said the jury, unlike in most cases, wrote to Holmes in hopes that Bever would receive concurrent sentencing, and he said he believes the finding of a jury should be respected. He also said the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals established new criteria on determining “permanent incorrigibility” while Bever’s sentencing phase was in progress and that the court ensured that those criteria were followed during the trial.
“That procedure was appropriate, and nothing has changed,” Brewster said. “No one has re-traumatized the survivors in this case more than the prosecutors who have advanced themselves at every publicity opportunity to desperately grab a few more minutes of fame.”