ST. JOSEPH — A man who was sent to prison for life nearly 50 years ago at age 17 will likely soon be a free man.
Wearing a blue, long-sleeved shirt, walking with a cane and sporting a clean-cut white beard, Bobby Gene Griffin, 67, told a Berrien County Trial Court judge Monday that he knows he can never undo his actions the night of Oct. 19, 1967, that left a woman dead.
“I was a teenager, but that’s no excuse. It was sheer stupidity. I’ve grown up now. I used my time wisely. I would like to express my deep apology to Mrs. Peaples’ relatives,” Griffin told Judge Scott Schofield by video conference from the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility near Adrian.
Schofield resentenced Griffin to 40-60 years behind bars, with credit for 18,159 days served. The equates to 49.75 years. He is immediately eliglble for parole, and the parole board is expected to release Griffin.
In 1967, Griffin was handed Michigan’s then-automatic life without parole sentence for the brutal murder of Minnie Peaples. But the law has since changed, stating that juveniles who are convicted of first-degree murder will no longer receive mandatory life sentences. The ruling is retroactive.
As Berrien County works through such cases, Griffin, of Benton Harbor, is the oldest defendant involved. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Miller vs. Alabama, ruled that the mandatory penalty of life without parole for a juvenile is unconstitutional, and that judges should have the discretion to sentence to life without parole or some terms of years between 25 and 40 as a minimum, and 60 years as a maximum. The Miller decision prompted the Michigan Legislature to enact such a law in 2014.
In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that the Miller decision is retroactive and applies to all the nation’s juvenile-lifers. That means anyone already in prison who was a juvenile when he or she committed a murder is entitled to a resentencing hearing. Prosecutors can file motions for the sentence to remain as life without parole, but judges are not mandated to stick with that sentence.
Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic earlier filed motions in 10 cases in Berrien County, including Griffin’s case, seeking to continue a sentence of life without parole. But he and assistant prosecutors have continued to review the cases, considering the Supreme Court’s opinion that children have a lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility, limited control over their own environment, with a brain and character not as well formed as that of adults.
Sepic said that in Griffin’s case, facts of the case, social history and conduct in prison all contributed to a decision by his office to withdraw the motion to continue a sentence of life without parole.
In court Monday, however, Sepic told Judge Schofield, “This was an especially heinous murder. It’s my opinion Mr. Griffin should never get out. But the law gives other factors we have to consider, and that’s what we were faced with here.”
Griffin was 16 when he and three other people broke into the home of Minnie Peaples in Benton Harbor. She was 84 and was the widow of a former Benton Harbor police chief.
Although the original intent was to rob the woman, Griffin beat her to death and sexually assaulted her while the three other people searched her home for valuables.
There were no relatives of Peaples in court Monday, but Sepic said he has spoken with grandchildren and “They’re not happy. They feel the government has breached their agreement with them.”
Sofia Nelson from the Michigan Appellate Defenders Office told the court that the U.S. Supreme Court found that children are constitutionally different than adults and that a life sentence without parole should only apply in cases in which a child is incapable of change and rehabilitation.
“Mr. Griffin has demonstrated that not only is he capable of change, but he has changed,” Nelson told the court. She said he has a “very strong” Michigan Department of Corrections record indicating that while in prison, he has followed the rules and tried to better himself by pursuing education and work.
Schofield said he had reviewed Griffin’s pre-sentence investigation report and a comprehensive re-entry plan for him.
“We live in a country, thankfully, with a Constitution, and we are constrained by it. The Supreme Court made it quite clear that people in his position may not be kept in prison without parole,” Schofield said.
“I will of course obey the Constitution. This was a horrible crime, and relatives are still suffering. But the law requires that I change your sentence,” he told Griffin. “You have been given an opportunity to make the most of what remains of your life and to be the person you were created to be.”
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