ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic believes that whether to release Michael Johnson from prison should be decided by the Michigan Parole Board.

In a decision this week, the Michigan Court of Appeals agreed, and reversed an earlier ruling by a Berrien County judge that Johnson should be re-sentenced.

“We believe Judge (John) Donahue’s decision implicating the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller decision was misguided, and we are pleased the Michigan Court of Appeals agreed with our position. Michael Johnson should be released when the Michigan Parole Board decides that reasonable assurances exist that he will not be a menace to society or to public safety,” Sepic said in a written statement Thursday.

Johnson, now 56, was 17 when he killed Sue Ellen Machemer, a 16-year-old classmate at Lakeshore High School, where they were both juniors. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on Aug. 12, 1980, and was sentenced by the late Judge Julian Hughes on Sept. 22, 1980, to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

After hearing arguments from both sides Donahue, the successor to Hughes on the bench in Berrien County Trial Court, ruled in May 2018 that Johnson’s parolable life sentence for pleading guilty to second-degree murder was invalid because his sentence fell under the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Miller vs. Alabama. In that case, the court ruled that mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole violates the 8th Amendment when applied to juveniles. 

But Sepic, who has argued all along that Johnson’s sentence does not fall under the Miller decision because his sentence is parolable, almost immediately appealed Donahue’s ruling to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which announced its decision this week.

In its written ruling, the Court of Appeals stated that the Miller case clearly applied to juveniles sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and does not apply to Johnson’s case. 

In his 2018 ruling Donahue, who has since retired, called juvenile offenders in Johnson’s position “step-children” left behind by the U.S. Supreme Court in its focus on juvenile offenders. The judge said those like Johnson, who receive a sentence of life with the possibility of parole, find themselves serving de facto life sentences, because the Michigan Parole Board has not provided a meaningful opportunity to obtain release. 

Johnson became eligible for parole after serving 10 years of his life sentence. He has been interviewed by the Parole Board four times, with each interview resulting in a “no interest” decision with no reason provided. For his next three reviews, the Parole Board declined to interview Johnson and instead chose to do a “file review,” each resulting in a “no interest” decision, again with no reason provided. 

Johnson killed Sue Ellen Machemer after coming along to help her after her car ran out of gas near Lakeshore High School. She then agreed to give him a ride and he directed her along a route he claimed was a shortcut. Then he tied her hands behind her and tried to rape her. Johnson has admitted that when she started screaming, he rolled her into a water-filled ditch to silence her, and watched for several minutes while her head was under water, and she drowned. He admitted that he intended to kill her to keep her from telling anyone that he had tried to sexually assault her.

Lawyers for Johnson have noted that throughout the years, besides his own family, the family of Sue Ellen had supported his release. Her parents, Ellen Machemer and the late Mel Machemer, have sat next to Johnson’s family in court in Berrien County. They said they had gotten to know him as an adult in prison, had forgiven him and thought it might be time for his release. 

Johnson has achieved numerous accomplishments in prison over the years. He continued his education and obtained a GED and associate degree from Montcalm Community College, completed vocational training for office occupations and received certification as a paralegal. 

Prison officials have noted that he has provided leadership and guidance to other inmates, and his lawyers say that while prison wardens have noted Johnson’s good behavior, the Parole Board has taken no notice of his stellar record in prison and rehabilitation.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals stated that while it finds Johnson’s original sentence to be valid, the court is “sympathetic to defendant’s point that the (parole) procedures for term-of-years sentences are better than those for parolable life sentences, and that the potential for meaningful review in his case has gone largely unrealized for an unknown reason.”

However, the Court of Appeals ruled, “Invalidating defendant’s valid sentence and re-sentencing him to a term of years is not the answer.” The court said the appropriate vehicle would be to file a claim for relief against the parole board.

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa