In the eyes of the state, Dontez Tillman acted as an adult when he and a group of teenage friends beat a homeless man to death behind a Pontiac bar.
But at critical moments leading to his conviction, the middle school student was treated as a child.
He was 14 when police allowed his mother to sit beside and scold him during interrogation. He was 15 when she advised him — for the second time — to reject a plea deal that would have resulted in a reduced sentence.
Now 17, Tillman still is not adult, but he holds a unique distinction. Of more than 3,300 prisoners in Michigan serving mandatory life, Tillman was the youngest at the time of his crime: 14 years, two months and 25 days.
Just two years in, he’s pining to get out. But Tillman isn’t mad at police, or prosecutors, or the judge who sentenced him. He is mad at the courtroom where he sat silent as adults debated his future, and where he wept when he learned his fate.
“I’ll never forget that court in all my life,” Tillman says during a recent interview at Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer. “When I first came into prison, I had a dream that I destroyed that courtroom. Not anybody in it. Just the courtroom.
“It was talking to me.”
BY THE NUMBERS
44: Juvenile lifers who were 15 when they committed their crimes
6: Juvenile lifers who were 14 when they committed their crimes
14, 2 and 25: Age in years, months and days of the youngest juvenile lifer at time of crime
4: Juvenile lifers who have died in prison
79: Oldest juvenile lifer ever, before death
3: Days short of his 80th birthday when he died
4: Number of people he killed
Michigan has 358 juvenile lifers, more than all but one other state. Most are much older now, adults imprisoned for decades and long forgotten by most everyone but the victims’ loved ones.
But Tillman’s arrest, trial and punishment made national headlines, captivating a public that wondered how anyone so young could kill — and in such a ruthless fashion.
He and his best friend, Thomas McCloud — just six months older — were automatically charged as adults under Michigan law in the death of Wilford “Frenchie” Hamilton.
A security guard found Hamilton, 61, unconscious and bleeding from the head in an alley on Aug. 21, 2008. He died a week later.
Separately, McCloud and a 16-year-old also were charged in the beating death of a second 61-year-old homeless man that same week. The group was accused, but not charged, in two other non-fatal attacks.
“They were boys who beat up homeless people because they wanted to,” Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper said.
Tillman admits he and his friends dealt drugs, stole cars and robbed people, but denies they targeted defenseless victims for sport.
“That’s not exciting to kill the homeless,” he says from prison, agitated by the suggestion. “That’s not fun. People remind me of that every day. That’s not me.”
At trial, Pontiac Detective Steve Wittebort testified Tillman admitted to kicking and hitting a man three to four times before he told his friends to stop, then ran off.
Before interrogation, Tillman waived his right to an attorney, but police allowed his mother to sit in. She encouraged him to describe his role, and chided him when he admitted it, transcripts show.
“You’re going to get in trouble ‘cause you were in it too,” Darlene Tillman said at the time. “I just told ya’ll last week, don’t be with them. Don’t be bothering nobody. Don’t be doing nothing to nobody.”
An assault or not?
Looking back, Tillman says he was confused during the interrogation. He may have assaulted a man that week, he says, but he believes that victim survived.
“I know I did things out there I’m not proud of,” he says, “and I know I have to change. I think God tested me to change my life. If I’d stayed out there, I would be dead or have got into something else.”
Separate juries convicted Tillman and McCloud of first-degree felony murder, meaning they participated in a crime where someone was killed. McCloud became the third-youngest juvenile lifer in the state.
Michigan law required both be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
“You and your co-defendant literally kicked a man to death,” visiting Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Steven Andrews told Tillman, apparently outraged at the crime but frustrated by the sentencing requirement. “This is a sad day for the criminal justice system, the person you killed and his family.”
Tillman’s mother ran from the courtroom in tears. Dontez also wept as he hung his head.
“I just felt so many people was judging me,” he recalls. “I didn’t even want to look around. I was so embarrassed. Yeah, I was crying. If somebody tells you ‘life’ and you don’t cry, you are a murderer. That’s not me.”
Living in prison
Like many 17-year-olds, Tillman spends his days doing chores, taking classes, playing sports, listening to his MP3 player and watching TV. But he does so in prison, where the threat of violence is part of his otherwise monotonous routine.
“It gets tiring and boring, always doing the same thing,” he says, sitting in a crowded visitor’s area. “But I know what I’m into, and the structure keeps us out of trouble.”
Until he turns 21, Tillman will live in the juvenile unit, where is he working on his G.E.D., taking other classes and studying the Bible. He sees McCloud every day. They remain best friends, but do not talk about spending life in prison.
“It’s depressing and embarrassing,” he says. “We talk about what we could do if we got out, not stay in. It just pulls you down. You don’t want to feel like that. You want to look forward.”
Tillman has made a few friends in prison, but largely heeds the advice of his sentencing judge: keep to himself; stay out of trouble. Authorities cited him for two instances of fighting early on, but he is working hard to keep his record clean.
“Classes helped my behavior and my education,” he said. “When I was 15, it was wild in here, but it showed me I could be a better man, that violence isn’t the way I want to live.”
Plea deals rejected
He didn’t have to face life.
Prosecutors offered Tillman a deal — before trial and again during jury deliberation — that would have imprisoned him as little as 15 years if he pleaded to second-degree murder.
Tillman’s mother told him to refuse, and he listened.
Darrin Higgins Jr., the 15-year-old who was prosecuted separately with McCloud, accepted a similar deal. His earliest release date is in 16 years.
“I think there’s no question my client should have taken the deal and shouldn’t be serving a life sentence without parole,” said Jonathan Sacks, Tillman’s appellate lawyer, during a motion hearing last year.
“The ringleader of the group, who was the one behind this homicide, he knows enough to plead guilty, and he gets a very reasonable sentence for a really horrific offense.”
Sacks asked Circuit Court Judge Rudy Nichols to declare Tillman’s sentence cruel and unusual punishment for a 14-year-old, “who by the prosecutor’s own admission did not have intent to kill.”
Nichols did not grant the request, but a U.S. District Court judge is poised to hear a similar argument in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a 16-year-old who played a role in a Detroit drug deal that ended with gunfire and a death.
The federal lawsuit has reignited a long-simmering debate over Michigan’s ban on parole for certain juvenile killers. Critics say the law ignores the potential for young criminals to grow into healthy adults.
“I can understand nobody wants to give up on a young person,” said Cooper, the Oakland prosecutor who spent 28 years as a judge before being elected to her current post.
“I understand that philosophy, but I have also had life experiences and ran into a couple young people who were sociopaths. I think that sociopaths are born. I don’t think that they’re made.”
Tillman, who is growing into a man but still uses pop-culture references like a teen, wants a second chance to challenge such assumptions.
“I want somebody to look at me and see a good person, but they don’t trust that we can change,” he said. “How can somebody be born a killer? That’s like Jason (from Friday the 13th), but even he went through some things. Nobody is born to kill. Nobody.”
If you have been charged with a crime contact Daniel Ambrose at 248-624-5500