ST. JOSEPH — The 17-year-old Tommy Richards that raped and killed 10-year-old Shimika Hicks had grown up in a violent, cruel, dysfunctional household in which his mother beat him and he often witnessed his mother’s boyfriend beat her, Richards’ lawyer told a Berrien County judge Tuesday.

The 49-year-old Tommy Richards of today is remorseful, religious, family-oriented and non-violent, Sofia Nelson from the State Appellate Defender’s Office told Berrien County Trial Court Judge Angela Pasula.

“He grew up learning that you take what you want, no matter who you hurt. This offense was terrible, and permanently devastated (Shimika’s) family and this community. But Tommy is capable of rehabilitation, and the factors that drove him to this offense no longer exist,” Nelson said in her opening remarks in Richards’ bid for a new sentence.

Berrien Assistant Prosecutor Jeffrey Taylor is fighting for Richards to again be sentenced to life in prison without parole in a resentencing hearing that began Tuesday and is expected to wrap up Thursday.

Richards and his sister, Kenosha Sharp, both took the witness stand Tuesday and testified about abuse they suffered at the hands of their mother while living with her in a rough part of Chicago.

But in cross examination, Taylor asked Sharp why, if the abuse affected her brother so profoundly that it would cause him to rape and kill, she has lived a healthy and successful life to date. Sharp has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and has a solid job working for Cook County in Illinois, Taylor pointed out.

“Whatever your upbringing, obviously it didn’t affect you at all,” the prosecutor said.

Shimika Hicks was last seen the evening of April 20, 1987, in the 700 block of East High Street in Benton Harbor, near where Richards was living with an aunt after having left his mother’s home in Chicago.

A community-wide search was initiated for the child, and Shimika’s body was found May 4, 1987, inside trash bags that had been dumped at a vacant lot on High Street.

An autopsy revealed she had been suffocated, struck in the face and violently raped.

An investigation led police to Richards, who initially denied any involvement. He told police he had found her body and dumped it because he was afraid to call police.

Richards eventually told Gary Ruhl, a detective sergeant with the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office at the time, that he had raped Shimika but her death was an accident.

Taylor asked Ruhl if Richards explained why he hadn’t immediately come forward since he was claiming it was an accident. Ruhl responded, “He just said he was scared.”

A Berrien County jury ultimately convicted Richards of first-degree felony murder, and he was handed the mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory penalty of life without parole for a juvenile is unconstitutional. The remedy is for a judge to have the discretion to sentence to life without parole or some other sentence, such as life with the possibility of parole or a term of years.

In 2014, the Michigan Legislature enacted a law that gave sentencing judges in cases on appeal and in the future, in which juveniles were convicted of first-degree murder, the choice between life without parole or a term of years. If a term of years, the minimum sentence must be between 25 and 40 years, with a maximum of 60 years. Richards has served 32 years in prison.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the unconstitutionality of mandatory life without parole for juveniles is retroactive. So Richards, and others who were sentenced as juveniles, can seek a new sentence. 

Prosecutors, however, can appeal to a judge to again sentence the person to life without parole, and Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic filed motions to do so in Richards’ case and several others.

Factors a judge must consider in a resentencing hearing relate not just to the facts of the case and the inmate’s involvement, but also the inmate’s family history, prior criminal involvement, mental health issues, school history, and generally the relative maturity of the inmate as a youth to fully realize the wrongfulness of their actions. Conduct in jail and/or prison is also considered.

Michael Danneffel, who conducted the background investigation on Richards for the prosecutor’s office, testified about Richards’ behavior in the Berrien County jail and in prison. While in jail, another male inmate accused him of sexual assault, but the claim was never substantiated and Richards was not disciplined or charged in connection with it.

While in prison, he was written up on two separate occasions, in 1991 and in March of this year for sexual misconduct with a female visitor, Danneffel testified.

Richards testified that both incidents were consensual with visiting girlfriends. Nelson added that the incidents “were nothing that would be illegal in the outside world.”

Testimony was to continue today and wrap up Thursday, with Kimisha Hicks’ mother expected to take the stand.

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