GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – They’re sentenced to life behind bars before they turn 18.
The debate over “juvenile lifers” is heating up after a split 4-3 ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court last week, which puts the state at odds with a decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.
That means more than 300 juvenile lifers sentenced in Michigan will not have their cases reviewed for a chance of parole.
In 2012, a US Supreme Court ruling struck down mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles.
FOX 17 sat down with the family of a man murdered by one of those juvenile lifers. The Mitchell family says they have Saulo Montalvo and are now campaigning for his release. Montalvo was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in a killing at Westside Beer Kooler in 1996.
Stephanie Mitchell describes the night of her great uncle, Rodney Corp, 60, was murdered.
"It was late in the evening in February," she says. "He was just working a normal shift as he always did." That was February 1, 1996. Two 15-year-olds walked into the Westside Beer Kooler and shot and killed Corp. Montalvo waited in the getaway car.
“They didn`t even ask for the money. They just shot him," Mitchell says. "They took the cash register, and the three boys left."
Corp, a husband and father of two, never had a chance. Mitchell says it was difficult for her whole family. "I lost him in such a terrible way," she says.
All three teens were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The prosecutor asked Mitchell’s family if they wanted Montalvo, who was 16 at the time, to be sentenced as a juvenile and serve five years or to be sentenced as an adult. Mitchell says her family decided five years was long enough for the extremely remorseful Montalvo to serve, but he was sentenced to life with no chance of parole.
Years passed and Montalvo remained behind bars with no opportunity to earn back his freedom.
"He’d like to have a second chance to work in the community, to help children that were hurting like he was,” Saulo’s wife, Laura, says.
Laura grew up with Saulo and stayed in touch with him after his sentencing. In 2010, she reached out to Janae Dean, their former teacher at Potter’s House School.
"As a teacher, I know how kids can get off the track," Dean says.
She reconnected with Montalvo and was taken aback by his remorse and the sentence he had received.
"This just didn’t seem right to me," she says.
It was Janae and Laura who connected Stephanie Mitchell with Montalvo. "I got the family together, and we talked about it, and we agreed on it," Mitchell says, "And I wrote him a letter, and in the letter I just wanted him to know that we forgave him."
Twelve family members signed two letters - one to Montalvo and another to the governor, asking for Montalvo's release.
Montalvo told them he would rather have forgiveness from Corp's family then ever have freedom. "I just thought that meant so much," Mitchell says. She says Saulo will set the standard for other prisoners.
Mitchell now campaigns for Montalvo and other juvenile lifers to have their cases looked at again. She has spoken in Lansing on their behalf.
"Forgiveness is forgiveness, and sin is sin," she says.
Mitchell says she's disappointed in the recent Michigan Supreme Court decision and in Attorney General Bill Schuette's statement that the ruling was a victory for crime victims and their families. "It would just be nice for him (Shuette) to acknowledge there are victim's families that do forgive and aren’t going to be re-traumatized,” Mitchell says."
"It is disturbing," Dean, Saulo's former teacher, says. "I was very disappointed, but I wasn`t surprised when it happened, because I know it goes back and forth."
But the three make it clear it's not a solution for every case.
"I think there`s a misrepresentation on the other side, you know, to equate the retroactivity with release, because it`s not. It's retroactivity," Laura says. "It doesn`t mean a sentence is gonna change.
The Mitchells say Montalvo brings them strength when they feel defeated. He heads the church ministry in prison and serves as a mentor to others.
Laura says her husband doesn’t feel entitled to a second chance. "He would say he doesn’t deserve it, because he helped commit a very heinous crime and took somebody’s life. But he asks for mercy."
Mitchell hopes her family will inspire other victims' families to forgive those that brought them their darkest days.
"It's hard," she says. "It`s something that you have to pray about, and it’s going to take a lot of time. But it makes you feel so much better."
An unlikely path and even more unlikely friendship - as the three women vow to stick together and fight for Montalvo's release.
"I love Saulo. I love his wife. I love Laura," Mitchell says. “I think they`re great people. They're my family from here on out and I tell them, 'I'm here til the end.'"
The three women now plan to start a petition to bring to Governor Snyder.
The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision on the retroactive juvenile lifers will now head to the Court of Appeals.