Victim’s family fights for juvenile lifer’s release

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – They’re sentenced to life behind bars before they turn 18.

The debate over “juvenile lifers” is heating up after a split 4-3 ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court last week, which puts the state at odds with a decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.

That means more than 300 juvenile lifers sentenced in Michigan will not have their cases reviewed for a chance of parole.

In 2012, a US Supreme Court ruling struck down mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles.

FOX 17 sat down with the family of a man murdered by one of those juvenile lifers. The Mitchell family says they have Saulo Montalvo and are now campaigning for his release. Montalvo was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in a killing at Westside Beer Kooler in 1996.

Stephanie Mitchell describes the night of her great uncle, Rodney Corp, 60, was murdered.

"It was late in the evening in February," she says. "He was just working a normal shift as he always did." That was February 1, 1996. Two 15-year-olds walked into the Westside Beer Kooler and shot and killed Corp. Montalvo waited in the getaway car.

“They didn`t even ask for the money. They just shot him," Mitchell says. "They took the cash register, and the three boys left."

Corp, a husband and father of two, never had a chance. Mitchell says it was difficult for her whole family. "I lost him in such a terrible way," she says.

All three teens were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The prosecutor asked Mitchell’s family if they wanted Montalvo, who was 16 at the time, to be sentenced as a juvenile and serve five years or to be sentenced as an adult. Mitchell says her family decided five years was long enough for the extremely remorseful Montalvo to serve, but he was sentenced to life with no chance of parole.

Years passed and Montalvo remained behind bars with no opportunity to earn back his freedom.

"He’d like to have a second chance to work in the community, to help children that were hurting like he was,” Saulo’s wife, Laura, says.

Laura grew up with Saulo and stayed in touch with him after his sentencing. In 2010, she reached out to Janae Dean, their former teacher at Potter’s House School.

"As a teacher, I know how kids can get off the track," Dean says.

She reconnected with Montalvo and was taken aback by his remorse and the sentence he had received.

"This just didn’t seem right to me," she says.

It was Janae and Laura who connected Stephanie Mitchell with Montalvo. "I got the family together, and we talked about it, and we agreed on it," Mitchell says, "And I wrote him a letter, and in the letter I just wanted him to know that we forgave him."

Twelve family members signed two letters - one to Montalvo and another to the governor, asking for Montalvo's release.

Montalvo told them he would rather have forgiveness from Corp's family then ever have freedom. "I just thought that meant so much," Mitchell says. She says Saulo will set the standard for other prisoners.

Mitchell now campaigns for Montalvo and other juvenile lifers to have their cases looked at again. She has spoken in Lansing on their behalf.

"Forgiveness is forgiveness, and sin is sin," she says.

Mitchell says she's disappointed in the recent Michigan Supreme Court decision and in Attorney General Bill Schuette's statement that the ruling was a victory for crime victims and their families. "It would just be nice for him (Shuette) to acknowledge there are victim's families that do forgive and aren’t going to be re-traumatized,” Mitchell says."

"It is disturbing," Dean, Saulo's former teacher, says. "I was very disappointed, but I wasn`t surprised when it happened, because I know it goes back and forth."

But the three make it clear it's not a solution for every case.

"I think there`s a misrepresentation on the other side, you know, to equate the retroactivity with release, because it`s not. It's retroactivity," Laura says. "It doesn`t mean a sentence is gonna change.

The Mitchells say Montalvo brings them strength when they feel defeated. He heads the church ministry in prison and serves as a mentor to others.

Laura says her husband doesn’t feel entitled to a second chance. "He would say he doesn’t deserve it, because he helped commit a very heinous crime and took somebody’s life. But he asks for mercy."

Mitchell hopes her family will inspire other victims' families to forgive those that brought them their darkest days.

"It's hard," she says. "It`s something that you have to pray about, and it’s going to take a lot of time. But it makes you feel so much better."

An unlikely path and even more unlikely friendship - as the three women vow to stick together and fight for Montalvo's release.

"I love Saulo. I love his wife. I love Laura," Mitchell says.  “I think they`re great people. They're my family from here on out and I tell them, 'I'm here til the end.'"

The three women now plan to start a petition to bring to Governor Snyder.

The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision on the retroactive juvenile lifers will now head to the Court of Appeals.

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  • Daves

    All to often these thugs know that when they turn 18 years old, their records will be clean and they know it. they have no incentive to behave like normal kids their age. Sadly, it is the parents fault for not teaching them to respect other people. If you are old enough to take someones life, then you do not belong on the streets, and you should be punished to the FULL extent of the law. Stop coddling these thugs. MURDER is MURDER no matter how old you are when you kill someone. Keep them in prison till they rot.


    Hey Dave, were you the same logical, clear-headed, mature, rational thinker at the age of 15 that you are today? Never did anything stupid or impetuous that you later regretted as a teen? And for Wrong Answer above…. “WITHOUT THOUGHT, BY TEENAGERS” pretty much describes most teenage behavior. What they did was terrible. But what do any of us gain by locking them up FOREVER? They can’t ever give anything back or pay taxes or make amends – but we do pay taxes. And we have to pay to keep them locked up, and that is extremely expensive, especially as they get older and require more and more services. I can barely remember even being 15, much less all of the dumb things I did back then. It’s not about giving them a pass…. it’s about recognizing that people change, especially kids who often mature out of their adolescent-driven stupidity. We all lose by keeping them locked up forever. Hold them accountable, yes. Make them pay, yes. But forever doesn’t make sense unless they continue to be a threat to public safety. For those that are no longer a threat, let them out so they can support Social Security for the rest of us!

    • Daves

      We have all done stupid things as teenagers, but did you ever murder anyone? Neither did I. Would you be saying this if one of your loved ones were murdered by these thugs? I don’t think so. these teenagers were never taught to respect other people and their rights to exist on this earth without being killed for what ever reason these thugs determined their right to kill them. I believe an eye for an eye. Everything we do in life has consequences. Apparently these killers were never taught that by their parents. I still say let them rot in prison. .

  • Kay

    18 years is enough time for his part as the driver. The victims family only wanted Montalvo to have the miniumum sentence of five years. Even the judge thought it was not a good sentence but felt five was too little. His hands were tied. Not all kids grow up in the ideal family situations. It’s been proven by medical experts that the adolescent mind is not always (depending on many factors) capable of making cognitive decisions or determining the long-term consequences for their actions. The US Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional to do this to children. They researched, analyzed, investigated, debated, etc. and determined it to be cruel and unjust punishment. Michigan is only one of a few states to decide not to go back and correct this mistaken law. It doesn’t mean they will necessarily get out but maybe depending on their crime, and their progress in prison. If you met Saulo you would understand. If this was your loved one and you had even a glimpse into inner city struggles, you would perhaps feel differently. Some of these juvenile lifers who have been role model prisoners and had not been in any trouble before their crime deserve a second chance. He has a tremendous amount of support, because people have met him and he is a wonderful, God fearing, respectable, young man who completely accepts responsibility and makes no excuses for his crime. He only hopes and prays for perhaps mercy one day.