After teenager Nicholas Lindsey was convicted of murdering a St. Petersburg police officer, his future seemed dismal yet clear: life in prison, no possibility of parole.
But because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Lindsey may get to argue for a different sentence.
The same is true for an estimated 180 other inmates in Florida who committed first-degree murders as teenagers and who received mandatory sentences of life in prison without a chance at parole.
"To me it's appalling," said Donna Crawford, whose husband, David S. Crawford, was gunned down last year by Lindsey, who had just turned 16.
"You put yourself in an adult position, then you should be treated as an adult," she said. "My husband never got a chance to make that decision."
She said Lindsey, now 17 and in a prison west of Gainesville, "is in a cage where he belongs."
But former Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan said the opinion was a compromise between prosecutors and defense advocates.
"I'm comfortable with the compromise," Sullivan said.
Sullivan was one of 12 former juvenile judges who signed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing against the life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. She attended oral arguments in the case at the Supreme Court.
Legal experts say the opinion may require the Florida Legislature to change the state law for sentencing juvenile killers.
"It leaves us on the horns of a dilemma, because there's only two possible sentences right now for juveniles … and neither is legal under this opinion," said J. Marion Moorman, the public defender for Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties.
In Florida, the other possible sentence for first-degree murderers is the death penalty — but the Supreme Court previously outlawed that for juveniles. So for years, that meant anyone who committed first-degree murder before age 18 could only be given one sentence: life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But that mandatory sentence is what has come under attack in the new Supreme Court opinion.
"It's not that they can't be sentenced to life without parole, it just can't be mandatory," said professor Bobbi Flowers of the Stetson University College of Law.
Instead of sentencing every juvenile murderer to life without parole, the Supreme Court now says at some point along the way, the court system must review each youth's history, as well as his or her crime, and decide whether a life-without-parole sentence is appropriate — or if something else would be better.
Now, "the judge just has to have some options," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.
But under current law, there are no other options.
"The judge can't say, 'Well I'm going to give him 30 years,' because the statutes don't allow it," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger.
"So either a judge has to violate the statute or know that they're sentencing somebody to an unconstitutional sentence," said state Rep. Michael Weinstein, R-Jacksonville, who also is a prosecutor.
"We're in a box," Weinstein said. "And the Legislature's the one that has to fix it."
He said he intends to introduce a bill that would fix the situation this way: People convicted of first-degree murder for killings they commit under age 18 would be sentenced to life in prison, but their cases would come up for review after 25 years. Judges would look into their cases at that time. Weinstein said he's optimistic of passage.
The state will need to decide two issues: how to handle these cases in the future and how to handle those from the past.
For those in the past, McCabe said he is preparing to go over cases his office has prosecuted in Pinellas and Pasco counties. If the defendants don't have lawyers, he said he may bring them up in court himself.
"I don't think I can just let people sit there knowing they're serving an otherwise illegal sentence," McCabe said.
But he said he wouldn't do that for Lindsey, whom he personally prosecuted. Lindsey has attorneys, he said.
The Florida Attorney General's Office, meanwhile, is taking the position that the state should revert back to the laws on the books before the mandatory life sentences were enacted. That would mean this group of inmates would be eligible for parole after 25 years.
The 5-4 opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan, says recent scientific research has shown major physiological differences in the minds of youths and the brains of adults. Youths have more "transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences," the opinion said.
But mandatory sentences like those in Florida mean judges can't take these factors into account.
"Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other — the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one. And still worse, each juvenile ... will receive the same sentence as the vast majority of adults committing similar homicide offenses," the opinion states.
Treating youths just like adults, instead of allowing for their differences, violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, the opinion said.
During Lindsey's trial, the teenager was sometimes portrayed as a calculating adult, sometimes as a scared child. Defense attorney Dyril Flanagan said Lindsey was not "the man" who planned to kill an officer, but rather a "whimpering snot-nose boy" who shot his handgun out of fear. But Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett countered: "This inexperienced, poor, little scared 16-year-old kid hit all five times" that he shot.
Donna Crawford is not happy that she may now need to keep track of Lindsey's case and come to court in the future to argue against his release.
"There might be a possibility that he can one day get out," she said. "He could possibly do this to somebody else. Or even seek retribution."
But Crawford's colleague and close friend Stu Crisco, who has retired as an officer, said he always expected some kind of appeal. He also thinks that in the case of a police killer, the sentence will stand.
"I think he deserves life in this particular case. And I think the judge will do the right thing and give him life."
Reach Curtis Krueger at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.