Families of victims despair at idea of possible shortened sentences
Marilyn and Rick Chew thought their son Matthew's killer would serve every day of his 35-year prison sentence, but now they aren't so sure.
A bill passed by the state House of Representatives this week would enable Idris Elahi to have a parole hearing after serving 60 percent of his sentence. Elahi was 17 when he fatally stabbed 25-year-old Matthew Chew in New London on Oct. 29, 2010.
"It makes me feel sick," Marilyn Chew said in a phone interview Wednesday from her home in Arcadia, Calif. "When you look at murder like this, it's just so wrong."
"It means we'll be at a parole hearing," Rick Chew said.
The bill is state lawmakers' response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting life sentences without the chance of parole for juvenile offenders. If it passes, inmates serving long sentences, including those convicted of serious crimes, would be eligible for parole if they committed the crimes before they turned 18.
Proponents of more lenient sentences for juveniles cite scientific evidence that the parts of the brain that control judgment and decision-making do not fully develop until a person reaches his 20s.
"I think they very much knew what they were doing," Marilyn Chew said.
Some of the teens in the Chew case testified they were watching television and playing video games at Elahi's house when they decided to go out and jump somebody. One of the teens dared Elahi to stab the victim.
"It was not a spontaneous plan. It was a carefully planned act," Rick Chew said.
Prosecutors identified Elahi as the lead aggressor in the case and he received the lengthiest prison sentence - 35 years. The others eventually were sentenced to 15 years or 8 years, depending on whether they cooperated with the prosecution.
Also eligible for an earlier parole hearing would be Vincent Green, who was three days shy of turning 18 on Sept. 26, 2008, when he took part in the murder of 29-year-old Kyle Sheets aboard a boat at a Mystic marina.
Green and Christopher Allen, who was 21 at the time, had boarded the Crucible with the intent of robbing Sheets while two younger men stood lookout outside, according to testimony. A struggle ensued during which Allen fatally stabbed Sheets. The victim's father, Russ Sheets, witnessed the killing.
Allen is serving a 32-year sentence. Green is serving 25 years for felony murder. The two teens who served as lookouts, Bruce Grisafe and Bryan Sutton, each were sentenced to five years.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Russ Sheets said he was unaware of the bill and said he couldn't comment because of a pending wrongful death civil lawsuit in the case.
Rhonda Exum-Strong, widow of DeJohn Strong, who was murdered by Bennie Gray in New London nearly 16 years ago, said she wishes lawmakers would think about how the bill would affect the victims' families.
"We don't get a redo, we don't get to do it over again. My husband, he can't be brought back from the dead, so why should (Gray) get a second chance to live a full life?," she said. "Meanwhile, we still have to suffer. And him being out on the street truly would be suffering to me."
Gray, 17 at the time, killed Strong at a Michael Road apartment complex during a drug dispute in November 1997. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison for the murder and a narcotics charge.
Strong's mother, Sharon Strong, said, "I think he knew exactly what he was doing, even though he was at that age, because we all have choices."
"Their hands were fully developed to pull the trigger. I am just blown away by this," Exum-Strong said.
James Suarez, a master patrol officer in the New London Police Department who survived an attempted murder by Gary Jones in September 1991, said he didn't think the bill should pass because he is still working on the force.
"I have got to look over my shoulder all time," Suarez said, adding later, "I feel they know what they are doing, yes, at age 16."
Jones was given 44½ years in prison for the attempted murder, assault and attempting to escape his cell, Suarez said.
The bill, HB 6581, passed 137-4 on Tuesday and heads next to the Senate.
Most members of the southeastern Connecticut delegation voted in favor, including: Timothy Bowles, D-Preston; Ernest Hewett, D-New London; Edward Jutila, D-East Lyme; Emmett Riley, D-Norwich; Brian Sear, D-Canterbury; Diana Urban, D-North Stonington; Elissa Wright, D-Groton; and Kevin Ryan, D-Oakdale.
Edward Moukawsher, D-Groton, was not present for the vote.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said she agrees with the concept of the bill.
"I don't think teenagers always know everything they are doing and the consequences of said actions," Osten said. "We have to look at their age as a consideration as we look at someone's mental health status, as we look at someone's developmental disability status."
When asked whether the bill sent the wrong message to criminals, she said, "I don't think they care what the rules are when they are teenagers making those decisions. No one goes to commit a crime in Connecticut and says Connecticut laws are hard."
"This does not mean that an offender gets out of jail," Osten said, adding that victims of crimes have the absolute right to be heard at the parole hearing.
State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, said he was still reviewing the bill and didn't know yet how he would vote.
"We are trying to hammer out what is appropriate action," Maynard said, adding that he had not heard from any family members of victims.
"It gets very dicey," he said. "What they are trying to achieve is not have these people behind bars for 50 years because they were kind of corralled (into the crime) by others and then find themselves 10 years later still serving out a 50-year sentence when they are mature enough and on a correct path but in warehouses at the taxpayers' expense."
State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, was unavailable for comment.
Five states already have passed legislation in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, while 10 states, including Connecticut, have pending legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.