A struggle to balance justice and redemption for juvenile offenders in Connecticut

The 70-year-old man rose slowly when his name was called. Before taking a seat at the microphone, he carefully unwrapped two framed photographs, one of a smiling 14-year-old boy, the other of a woman in her 40s. He placed them before the Connecticut Sentencing Commission.

“My name is John Cluny,” he said. “I’ve been up here before. That’s a picture of my wife and son, who were murdered on May 24, 1993.”

The commission is weighing legislation it intends to submit to the General Assembly next year, the latest attempt to respond to a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that juveniles cannot be sentenced as if they were adults.

The decisions were based on science that shows differences in adult and juvenile brains, particularly the parts involved in judgment and behavior control, and on studies that found teens have a greater susceptibility to environment and peer pressure.

One case forbids a mandatory sentence of life without parole for children, even for murder.

Cluny still speaks of the killer of his wife and son as “the Bernier kid.” Michael Bernier, now 35, a neighbor, was 15 the day he skipped school, broke into the Cluny home in Norwich and hunted for the key that would unlock a .357-caliber revolver that Cluny had taught his 14-year-old son, David, and Bernier to shoot in the backyard.

With the three minutes allotted to each witness at the public hearing at the Legislative Office Building, Cluny quickly and calmly told the story of how Bernier, who had slept over three days earlier, ambushed his son, firing a shot into the back of his skull. Bernier killed his wife, Elaine, in the same manner as she returned from her teaching job and bent over to check on David.

Bernier pleaded guilty under a deal that guaranteed a sentence of 60 years in prison. Cluny wanted the death penalty, but he left court comforted by the belief that the sentence never could be reviewed – a belief shaken by subsequent court decisions. He has come to Hartford to testify against previous efforts to allow a greater review of juvenile sentences.

“Let me ask you a question. How do you define justice? Anybody got an answer?” Cluny asked, his voice even. “To me, justice is defined as the punishment of the crime is equal to the magnitude and the seriousness of the crime. Not greater than and not lesser than, equal to. The word equal is critical.”

No one answered him, though Garvin Ambrose, the state’s new victim’s advocate, said he opposes the legislation as it is now drawn, even though his predecessor endorsed it.

Cluny said Bernier does not deserve a second chance, regardless of how he has matured or developed during 20 years in prison.

“I have no clue as to what stage of development he is. I don’t much care. I’m just telling you he committed cold-blooded murder,” Cluny said.

But Cluny had listened to the testimony of other parents, mothers and fathers whose sons had made grievous mistakes as teenagers and now were serving long sentences with little hope of reprieve. He said some of those offenders may deserve a second look, especially those who grew up around gangs.

“You believe there are certain people who are capable of rehabilitation, who are capable of redemption, who are capable of changing. Is that correct?” asked Kevin Kane, the chief state’s attorney and a member of the commission.

“Some,” Cluny replied.

“I agree with you,” Kane said. “I’ve been a prosecutor for a long time.”

In 1993, Kane was the New London state’s attorney. He prosecuted Bernier.

Kane told him the commission was trying to create a review process that would pass muster with the Supreme Court decisions on juveniles, rather than allow judges to rule without guidance on whether defendants sentenced long ago as children now deserve release as adults.

A working group composed of commission members with diverse backgrounds in criminal justice endorsed a bill last year that was passed in late May by the House of Representatives on an overwhelming bipartisan vote, 137 to 4. But the session ended two weeks later without action by the Senate.

The bill, which the commission is considering re-introducing, retroactively eliminates life sentences for capital felonies committed by offenders when they were under 18. It also establishes new parole rules for offenders under 18 who are sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.

Thomas Ullman, the New Haven public defender, told Cluny that the commission’s proposal was not a guarantee that every juvenile offender would see their sentence reduced, just as some adult offenders are repeatedly refused parole.

“I just wanted to assure you this is not a get out of jail free card,” Ullman said.

Cluny nodded.

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