ST. JOSEPH — A Benton Harbor man who expected to spend the rest of his life in prison now is eligible for parole.
Berrien County Trial Court Judge Gary Bruce resentenced Christopher Tobar, 44, to 25-60 years in prison for the 1993 murder of Paries Cummings, 33, of Benton Harbor. He has served the minimum of 25 on the murder charge and another two years on a weapons charge, so can request a hearing before the Michigan Parole Board to ask for release.
Tobar was 17 when on Jan. 30, 1993, he fatally shot Cummings as she walked alone at around 2:30 a.m. along Clay Street in Benton Harbor. He was found guilty of first-degree felony murder and was sentenced to life without parole, the mandatory penalty for that crime in Michigan. But the U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled that mandatory, automatic life without parole for anyone under 18 in unconstitutional because a juvenile’s brain is not fully developed.
Charlene Duncan lived just two blocks away at Clay and Pipestone and Cummings had been staying there with her when she was killed, leaving behind three children, who are now grown.
Speaking Tuesday at a resentencing hearing for Tobar, Duncan said, “I was the last one to see her. I’m giving it to the Lord, but if it’s the court’s order that he be released, make it a condition that he do something for her children.”
Outside the courtroom, Duncan said, “I’ve had to re-live this. I feel responsible because I feel like if she had not been staying at my house this wouldn’t have happened. I’ve given it to the Lord.”
Since the 2012 Supreme Court ruling, the court in 2016 made the decision retroactive. So courts in Michigan had to dust off their juvenile-lifer cases for review. Judges now have the discretion to sentence juvie-lifers to life without parole or a term of years. The life without parole sentence should be reserved only for those juveniles who are determined to be “irreparably corrupt” and unable to be rehabilitated, the Supreme Court stated in it’s decision.
Prosecutors can argue for the life without parole sentence to stick, and Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic decided to do that in Tobar’s case and several others.
At a hearing in February, Berrien Assistant Prosecutor Amy Byrd fought for the prosecutor’s motion, while Sofia Nelson from the State Appellate Defenders Office argued for Tobar to be resentenced to a term of years. Following that hearing, Judge Bruce ruled that Tobar is not irreparably corrupt, is capable of change, and should be resentenced.
During Tuesday’s hearing, held by video conference between the court and the state prison where Tobar is incarcerated, with everyone in the courtroom wearing face masks due to the pandemic, Byrd asked the judge to take into consideration the senselessness of the murder.
Tobar was in a car with four other people when they decided to rob someone. He and another person got out of the car and Tobar pointed the gun at Paries. According to testimony, the other person shot at a bystander and seconds later, Tobar pulled the trigger and fatally shot Paries.
Testifying in his own behalf during Tuesday’s hearing, Tobar said, “I want to once again apologize to the family and to the people of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. Today as a 44-year-old man I realize what I’ve done and I realize it is never appropriate to take someone’s life.”
Nelson asked for a resentence of 25 years minimum, saying Tobar is at risk of contracting coronavirus in prison and has been determined by prison staff to be at low risk of violence or reoffending.
Before pronouncing the new sentence, Bruce said factors leading to Tobar’s crime included insufficient brain development, peer pressure and no parental influence, “a recipe for something disastrous to happen.”
He told Tobar, “You took the life of an innocent woman who did nothing but walk down the street. Redemption is something you have the rest of your life to earn. Every day, until your life is over, prove to her family and yours, to your lawyers, to me, and to yourself, that you are doing that.”
He cautioned Tobar that the world has changed drastically since he went to prison and that every minute of every day will be a struggle and, “You will earn redemption by the life you live.”
The judge told Tobar it won’t be easy.
“Right now there’s a 16- or 17-year-old boy out there wondering what he would look like if he carried a gun and gained a reputation for it. Find a way to reach that young man. Be honest with yourself about redemption. Tell yourself ‘I was handed my life back and I made the most of it.’ Are you ready for that?” Bruce asked Tobar.
“Yes sir,” Tobar responded.