Parents fight to keep juvenile killers in prison
Saturday, November 22, 2008
By Liza Matia Staff Writer
Is life without parole inhumane for juveniles who commit crimes? That's the question circulating in Harrisburg and around the state.
In September, Jodi Dotts and Ron Klotz, two local parents of murdered children, along with advocates from the Clearfield County Victim Witness Office, attended a public informational hearing at the Capitol.
The purpose of the hearing, led by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montco-Bucks, was to hear arguments as to why Pennsylvania leads the nation in the highest number of juveniles sentenced to life without parole and whether or not their life sentences should be reformed. Sen. Greenleaf wanted to make sure that no injustice was being done and that the state's system was operating fairly.
Watchdog groups like Human Rights Watch are urging states to abolish life sentences without parole for juveniles and to do so retroactively.
According to Clearfield County District Attorney William A. Shaw Jr., "This is an attempt to change the law regarding murder. The law already takes into consideration the age of offenders. In many situations, it is an issue for the jury to decide if the offender should be convicted of murder in the first degree or if circumstances justify a conviction to a lesser degree of murder."
When Judy Shirey, coordinator of the Clearfield County Victim Witness office, first received notification about the hearing, she "got all fired up."
"It hits you," she said. At first, she wasn't sure if the hearing could relate to any Clearfield County cases, but she would soon learn that two local cases would qualify.
Andrew Callahan and Jessica Holtmeyer were both teens when they were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole after being convicted of first-degree murder. In 1997, Mr. Callahan shot and killed his 16-year-old classmate, Micah Pollock, and dumped his body in a beaver dam in the Pine Run area. He was convicted in 1998 and again in 2007 when he was retried for the murder. Ms. Holtmeyer was convicted in 1998 for the hanging death of 15-year-old Kimberly Jo Dotts in a rural area of Bradford Township. Six other teens were involved in the case.
Ms. Shirey alerted Mr. Klotz, Micah's father, and Ms. Dotts', the mother of Kimberly, that notification of the hearing was on the way.
"We handled it together," Ms. Shirey said.
Ms. Dotts described the letter as "the scariest letter ever," but both she and Mr. Klotz knew that they "had to be part of this."
Ms. Shirey contacted the Office of the Victim Advocate in Harrisburg and described each case in graphic detail. In order to hear both sides of the story at the hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee invited testimony of the victims from the eligible cases. Both Ms. Dotts and Mr. Klotz were chosen to testify. They were two of only eight victims who would present their sides of the story.
Ms. Dotts said she was "so excited to be picked" and wanted people to know what Ms. Holtmeyer and Mr. Callahan did. She felt it was important for them to hear her feelings and emotions during the testimony.
"This was one of the hardest things we've ever had to sit through and hear," Ms. Dotts said of the hearing. She described listening to testimony from inmates who were convicted as juveniles and sentenced to life in prison. She said the inmates talked about being rehabilitated and deserving second chances at life.
"But my daughter, his son," she said, motioning to Mr. Klotz, "weren't given a second chance."
The hearing also featured testimony from church groups, watchdog groups and church leaders who felt that life sentences for juveniles was inhumane. Ms. Dotts said that one woman argued that the human brain isn't fully developed until age 30.
"These kids knew right from wrong," Ms. Dotts said of the inmates who testified. "They made the decision."
Despite their stories of rehabilitation, what struck Ms. Dotts most about the inmates' testimony was their lack of remorse.
"They never said they were ever sorry for what they did," she said. "It was all about ‘me' and second chances."
She said that she and Mr. Klotz held up photos of Micah and Kimberly because they wanted people to see how young their children were when they were murdered.
While the inmates expressed no remorse, Ms. Dotts also said she had difficulty feeling sorry for them. She said she doesn't feel that criminals, like Ms. Holtmeyer, are being treated inhumanely because she learned they have access to the Internet and are provided with the basic needs like food, clothing and shelter.
The two described the hearing as a "hostile environment" and felt that everyone was against them.
"We were like defendants," Mr. Klotz said.
The victims felt that there was an imbalance in attendance because there seemed to be more proponents for abolishing the life sentence than those who were against it. Some even left while victims were testifying.
"They didn't want to hear us," Ms. Dotts said. "They only wanted to hear one side."
Mr. Klotz pointed out that in order for juveniles to qualify for the charge of first-degree murder, they had to have murdered or been an accessory to a murder.
"That's not the mind of a child," he said.
According to Ms. Dotts, the only salvation that parents like she and Mr. Klotz have is knowing that their children's murderers are locked up.
"But every year, I know there's the chance for appeals," she said. Ms. Dotts said that the part of "life without parole" is the "only thing we have to hold on to."
If advocacy groups get their way, there could be nothing left for victims like Ms. Dotts and Mr. Klotz to hold onto.
"A change in the law would be devastating to victims," Mr. Shaw said. "In PA, life without parole means life without parole, and it is unfair to make victims now worry that a previously convicted offender may now be considered for parole."
According to Ms. Shirey, if the sentence of life without parole is abolished, the inmates will appear before the state parole board, and will eventually be released.
Ms. Dotts said that she pleaded with the parole board not to release one of girls involved in her daughter's murder, but they did.
"I did everything I could do," she said. "It's never over. There's never any closure."
Ms. Shirey noted that while the hearing they attended was just that and no action was taken, "the door is open" for something more to happen.
"Just because the hearing's over doesn't mean it will stop," Mr. Klotz said.
In the cases of Ms. Holtmeyer and Mr. Callahan, Ms. Shirey said that the cases could be revisited and the sentences reworded.
"Our juveniles are on that list. We worry about that," Ms. Dotts said. "Our voices need to be heard. We need to be taken seriously."