CAMDEN COUNTY, Mo. — In the next chapter of a story involving drugs, heavy metal rock music, satanic worship, animal torture, and human sacrifice, the Circuit Court of Camden County has denied admitted teen murderer James M. Hardy the ability to withdraw his guilty plea.
In a crime so lurid it drew national attention, Hardy, a troubled 17-year-old student in Carl Junction, a suburb of Joplin, was charged in 1987 with the murder of a fellow student, Steven Newberry. Hardy, along with Pete Roland and Ron Clements, clubbed Newberry to death with baseball bats after the ritual killing of a kitten had taken place in a secluded spot near Carl Junction. It only took a few days for the local police to develop suspects and make the arrests. The three teens said they murdered Newberry, their compatriot, as a sacrifice to Satan. Police pieced together a narrative of the boys' descent into depravity: drug use, violent heavy metal music and animal torture led to the murder of Newberry.
On October 25, 1988, Geraldo Rivera aired a segment on NBC called Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. Rivera filmed an interview with Roland, who was serving his sentence at the Fulton State Prison in Fulton, Missouri.
The L.A. Times also published in 1988 a lengthy article about the murder, including background information on the three high school students charged with the crime.
Case & Legal History
On May 6, 2016, Attorney Gary Brotherton appeared in the Circuit Court of Camden County for arguments on Hardy’s Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea in Case No. 26R018800001-01. The State of Missouri was represented by Dean Dankelson, Prosecuting Attorney for Jasper County. The Circuit Court of Jasper County granted a change of venue in March of 1988, thus, any post-conviction legal maneuvers would be heard in Camden County, and that is where the case has proceeded. Hardy had been transported from the State penal institution in order to give testimony at this motion hearing.
The central legal issue in the motion is that Hardy, a juvenile at the time of the crime, was told he could get the death penalty for 1st Degree Murder, but if he pleaded guilty, the prosecutor would allow him to serve a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. During the motion hearing on May 6, Hardy testified that he agreed to the plea arrangement in order to save his own life by not going to trial. He testified that both his lawyer and his mother explained to him that the best deal he could get would be life without any possibility of parole.
A further complication was that Hardy was not allowed to offer evidence of mitigating factors which may have affected the sentencing decision had he chosen to go to trial. Adverse home life and mental defect are two factors which affect the mind and actions of juveniles and can warrant some leniency on the part of the court during sentencing, even in a crime as egregious as homicide.
On April 20, 1988, the court ordered a mental examination, but Hardy entered a guilty plea nine days later. No mental exam took place, Hardy’s plea was accepted, and the court sentenced Hardy to Life Without Parole on May 25, 1988, without the mental examination having been conducted.
But two recent United States Supreme Court decisions have offered Hardy the possibility of someday leaving prison alive, and even gave him cause to believe his guilty plea might be undone. That was the question before Judge Kenneth Hayden in the Camden County Courthouse this month.
Those two Supreme Court decisions have rendered imposition of both the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional. Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) both affect the status of James Hardy.
In Miller the court held “…that mandatory life without parole for those under age of 18 at the time of their crime violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.” Further, the court stated, “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” And also, “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him – and from which he cannot usually extricate himself – no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.” In Montgomery, the court found that Miller must be applied retroactively because it is a substantive issue and not a procedural defect.
Procedural defects relate to how a criminal action is processed through the criminal justice system. A finding of guilt and the subsequent sentence imposed upon the defendant may still be legal and constitutional even if some procedural error occurred during the process.
A substantive defect concerns how a fact is handled at trial or the conclusions drawn as well as the constitutionality of the sentencing and range of punishments handed down. A substantive constitutional rule pertains to constitutional rights as opposed to a procedural guarantee. In effect, the Montgomery ruling established that if an action is found to be unconstitutional today, it was also unconstitutional in the past and must be applied retroactively.
However, the Supreme Court also gave guidance on what remedy would be acceptable for the State court where a juvenile has been handed an unconstitutional sentence of life without parole. In lieu of re-litigating a murder trial several years after the first trial, the state may simply allow the prisoner to apply for parole, thus finally offering the full range of sentencing options which were denied the juvenile defendant when he offered his plea prior to trial.
Hardy has attempted to gain relief through the appellate division and State Supreme Court of Missouri four different times since 2009. These were by Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus (a legal challenge to unlawful custody asking the court to order release). A second legal attempt to gain relief was Hardy’s motion to vacate his guilty plea in the last instance, which was filed in 2014.
In March of 2016, the State Supreme Court issued an order in the matter, which said, in part, “… Montgomery expressly states, for those cases where the conviction and life without parole sentence were final, that a state could ‘remedy a Miller violation by allowing juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.’ Now, therefore, this court, in order to comply with the constitutional requirements of Miller and Montgomery, hereby orders that this petition be sustained in part. This petitioner shall be eligible to apply for parole after serving 25 years’ imprisonment on his sentence of life without parole…. All other claims alleged in the petition and pending motions are denied without prejudice.”
On May 6, in the Camden County Courthouse, Hardy’s attorney argued that the 17-year-old James Hardy simply did not have a way of making an informed decision about his options in 1988 because he was faced with choosing between only two outcomes, both of which have since been deemed unconstitutional: the death penalty applied to a juvenile, or life without the possibility of parole applied to a juvenile.
The Motion itself, as filed, contained 13 pages of nuanced legal arguments starting with establishing the continued jurisdiction of the court years after the fact “…in order to correct manifest injustice….” Further, the motion cited Roper v. Simmons, a U.S. Supreme Court decision which held that the Eighth Amendment protected juveniles from the death penalty and Miller v. Alabama which held that life without parole for a juvenile constituted cruel and unusual punishment as prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
Continuing, the motion argued that the concept of proportionality is central to the Eighth Amendment and the unique attributes of youth must be considered when sentencing juveniles. Those factors that could cause the court to mitigate the penalty were not considered in the application of a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Indeed, the very mental health exam which was ordered by the trial court never took place because the guilty plea was accepted and the sentence offered in the plea arrangement was then imposed.
On June 6, Judge Kenneth Hayden issued his Judgment addressing the defendant’s Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea. After considering the pleadings of the parties, the court found that the motion should be denied. The Court’s order then outlined in seven pages the specific reasons for denial and explained that a more proper means of redress would be a Petition for Habeas Corpus.
In closing the order states: “The Court reaches this conclusion in an effort to bring some finality to this proceeding noting the extensive procedural history involved with this case and the multiple motions filed by the Defendant in this case seeking leave to withdraw his plea of guilty because of manifest injustice, this now being the third such occasion.”
Jasper County Prosecuting Attorney, Dean Dankelson, in a telephone interview, stated he would let his arguments in court stand for his statement about the denial. Dankelson offered that Hardy might have two alternate options for relief.
Senate Bill (SB) 590 is currently on Governor Nixon’s desk awaiting his signature. Authored by Senator Bob Dixon (R) of Springfield, SB 590 would repeal the mandatory sentence of life without parole, found unconstitutional in Miller v. Alabama, and codify a procedure for parole application to be made available to those defendants who were convicted of murder and sentenced before their 18th birthday to life without parole. The application could be made after serving 25 years of their sentence. If denied, they would again be able to apply after the 35th year of their sentence.
According to a source within the governor’s office, Nixon has not given any indication about his decision to sign or veto SB 590, but the bill is still under full review and the results of that review will inform the governor’s decision.
Dankelson explained that if SB 590 were not signed into law, the Missouri Supreme Court has outlined the procedure by which a defendant may apply for parole after serving 25 years of the sentence, thereby remedying the substantive defect of a juvenile being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.