Dontez Tillman and Thomas McCloud were 14-year-old middle schoolers in Pontiac in the summer of 2008.
Neither was old enough to drive, drink, nor apply for a video store membership.
Today, Tillman and McCloud are serving mandatory life sentences in a Lapeer prison, convicted as adults of first-degree murder in November of 2009 for the beating deaths of two homeless men over three days with older teens.
“I screwed up my life,” McCloud told the Free Press in a prison interview. “I wish I could take it all back, that I never left the house that day.”
Their case brings into focus Michigan’s position in a national debate over how to handle young killers. Michigan has 352 prisoners serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed while they were juveniles — the second-highest number in the country, behind Pennsylvania at 444.
Legislators and the U.S. Supreme Court are rethinking the idea of sending teens away to prison forever. Michigan is among 12 states where legislation has been introduced that would ban the practice, or at least give judges some discretion. Texas and Colorado in recent years have banned mandatory life for juveniles.
But Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, whose office tried Tillman and McCloud, said the boys are exactly where they belong. “These are gut-wrenching, soul-searching determinations,” she said.
As the debate continues, Tillman, now 15, and McCloud, now 16, spend their days in a juvenile unit at the Thumb Correctional Facility, an adult prison in Lapeer. At age 21, they will be transferred to the state’s adult prison population to spend the rest of their lives.
Some say teens don’t know better
Tillman and McCloud were not listening to their lawyers in the months leading up to their 2009 first-degree murder trial.
Prosecutors were offering the two middle-schoolers a deal: Tell us who helped you stomp and beat to death two homeless men, and we’ll let you plead to second-degree murder. They could walk free in 15 years.
Take the deal, their attorneys urged.
Instead, the two listened to their mothers, who said no. A jury then convicted both boys as adults for first-degree murder in Novembe of 2009.
Tillman and McCloud are among Michigan’s total 45,000 inmates. Their days are spent doing chores, watching television or walking in the exercise yard. They will likely never walk free.
Their story paints a terrible irony. They are boys old enough to be charged as adults under Michigan’s stringent get-tough-on-juveniles laws. Yet they are children who deferred to their mothers for the most important decision in their young lives — a decision that put them behind bars for life.
Do you think that juveniles should be sentenced as adults?
If you have questions on a juvenile crime case contact Samantha Moffett at (248) 624-5500 or email her at Samantha@ambroselawgroup.com