In 2007, I wrote that convicted murderer Robert Cameron Houston was "the first juvenile offender to enter the Utah State Prison with no
hope of dying anywhere but in prison." The U.S. Supreme Court, however, will soon bring Houston and his family a pinch of hope.
Houston pleaded guilty to aggravated murder--a capital crime--for the rape and murder of 22-year-old Raechale Elton, of Tooele. Elton was a Weber State University undergraduate in criminal justice and also a worker at a Clearfield group home for juvenile offenders where Houston lived in February 2006. The details of the crime were alarmingly violent: Houston both stabbed and slashed Elton with a knife while raping her, eventually killing her. Elton was pretty, compassionate, popular, had a loving family. "Raechale gave her life while helping others. There is no greater love," her father said at her funeral.
It was the most violent crime a juvenile in Utah had ever committed, Davis County prosecutors argued to a jury, which sentenced Houston to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) in 2nd District Court in April 2007 (the jury vote was 11-1 in favor of LWOP, but under Utah law, prosecutors needed only 10 jurors to agree to the sentence for it to be imposed). Houston had struggled with a lifetime of depression and was diagnosed with sexual- and violence-related obsessive compulsive disorder by a neuropsychologist who testified for the defense. Houston was obsessed with his own inadequacies and lack of personal value, testified Dr. Linda Gummow, and was compulsively violent and sexual in response.
Houston's not the type of juvenile offender who's usually portrayed in news stories about the cruel and inhumane aspects of sentencing people to life in prison without parole for crimes they committed in their youths. His crime is more violent and difficult to understand. Take this New York Times story, for example.
More than a decade ago, a 14-year-old boy killed his stepbrother in a scuffle that escalated from goofing around with a blowgun to an angry threat with a bow and arrow to the fatal thrust of a hunting knife.
The boy, Quantel Lotts, had spent part of the morning playing with Pokémon cards. He was in seventh grade and not yet five feet tall.
Mr. Lotts is 25 now, and he is in the maximum-security prison here, serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for murder.
But, Houston is the only person in the Utah prison system who is serving LWOP for a juvenile crime.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that LWOP for juvenile crimes is unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment in cases that did not involve a death. There's no question the sentence is unusual: according to a report from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the sentence is all but non existent anywhere outside the U.S., the world's most prolific jailer, yet more than 2,500 people in U.S. prisons are serving life without parole for crimes they committed as a juvenile.
Now the U.S. Supreme Court will hear cases questioning whether crimes that did involve a death likewise do not justify LWOP for juvenile crimes. The first cases, the New York Times reports, will ask whether LWOP for murder convicts who were only 13 or 14 at the time of their crime are unconstitutional, but it's expected further challenges will come.
According to Human Rights Watch in a 2008, "In 11 of the 17 years between 1985 and 2001, youth convicted of murder in the United
States were more likely to enter prison with a life without parole sentence than were adults convicted of the same crime. ... On average across the country, black youth are serving life without parole at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth."
On top of all that, opponents of juvenile LWOP often talk of hope. James Tramel is a convicted accessory to murder in San Francisco who became and ordained priest while in prison. When I spoke to him in 2007, not too long after his release, he said juveniles must be given the hope that some day they might be paroled, or they lose all sense of humanity, they die a "moral death," he said. Had Tramel been told that he would never be paroled, he said, it would have been impossible for him to pursue his ministry and make right with God.
If the U.S. Supreme Court eventually nullifies all LWOP sentences for juvenile crimes, Houston's sentence would revert to 20 years to life in prison. After 20 years, he would be considered for parole. Dr. Gummow testified at court that in 40, 30, maybe in 20 years, amazing advances in mental health awareness and treatment might largely explain the biological--and therefore somewhat involuntary--behavior that contributes to Houston's violence. If advances allow Houston to be treated, why shouldn't he be considered for parole, many people ask.
As it stands, Houston has been ineligible for any prison programs, like education and work study. Since he'll most likely will never be released back to the public, the Dept. of Corrections figures that he shouldn't be given a highly-coveted spot in a education or other program that would be better given to an inmate who will be released to the general public.
I've sent messages to Houston several times over the years requesting an interview. He has always declined, prison officials tell me.He's never been interviewed by anyone else, either.
The defense during his trial
questioned Houston's treatment at Youth Health Associates where he was
in residence for prior sexual assaults when he was 14 and 15. He
was living in a so-called independent living setting and was also
attending group therapy--neither of which were appropriately targeted to his needs, the defense
argued. They also claimed that he had been misdiagnosed and received the wrong treatment for two years prior to Elton's murder. The state juvenile justice system, they said, failed to protect Houston from himself--and failed to protect Elton from Houston.
But I'll never get out of my head the recorded confession he gave to a Clearfield police officer that was played for the jury at his sentencing trial, which I covered for the Standard-Examiner. The confession came just hours after the murder, and his description of the events were horrifying and sad. To me, he was obviously remorseful, embarrassed, so scared. The remorse wasn't evidenced by crying but but he could not explain his actions; they were as mysterious and uncomfortable to him as anyone, it seemed to me. He liked Elton. He respected her and thought she was cute; there was a suggestion at trial that he had a crush on her though Houston himself never testified and has never spoke publicly about his case. "Houston told Clearfield Police detective Mike Valencia that Houston had been thinking about assaulting Elton for two weeks, but he 'didn't want to do it,'" wrote Linda Thompson for the Deseret News during the sentencing trial. "'I don't think I'm mentally stable,' Houston said [in his confession]. 'I see things I shouldn't see. I think things I shouldn't.'" His confession was certainly not one of a cold-hearted killer, in my opinion, but of a very confused, scared yet dangerous kid.
You can read the 2007 enterprise story I wrote for the Standard Examiner about the issue of life without parole for juvenile offenders on this page. (the story is no longer live on the newspaper's website).