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Federal court ruling might help Roman Nose, 7 others sentenced to life as youths

ST. PAUL -- A ruling Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court could mean early release for eight Minnesota prisoners serving life terms for murders they committed as juveniles, including Tony Roman Nose, who raped and killed a Woodbury woman when he was 17.

The nation’s highest court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

The court said Monday that decision applies retroactively, meaning prisoners now serving life sentences for crimes they committed as children should now be allowed to seek reduced sentences.

The previous ruling did not say whether it should be applied retroactively, and the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded in 2014 that it should not. But ruling in a Louisiana case, the U.S. Supreme Court said Monday that the prohibition applies to older cases, too. The decision gives about 1,200 inmates nationwide a chance at freedom.

Assistant State Public Defender Steven Russett said he believes the decision requires that Minnesota courts resentence defendants like Roman Nose.

Russett represented Roman Nose in his unsuccessful 2014 appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“This doesn’t mean anything other than these defendants will be entitled to a hearing to determine if they would receive a sentence with the possibility of parole,” Russett said. “And it doesn’t mean these defendants will ever be released from prison. The most it means is they would be eligible and the key word is ‘eligible’ for parole at some future date.”

Fred Fink, chief of the criminal division in the Washington County attorney’s office, said he highly doubts Roman Nose will go free, given the facts of his case. Roman Nose, now 33, remains in the state’s maximum security prison at Oak Park Heights.

Roman Nose was two months shy of his 18th birthday “the traditional age of adulthood” when prosecutors say he raped and killed Jolene Stuedemann, 18, of Woodbury in 2000, stabbing her 29 times with a screwdriver.

Her mother, Jeanne Stuedemann, said she thought the issue was settled, and she felt sick to learn that Roman Nose might have a chance at parole.

“We’re tormented by this,” Stuedemann said. “They promised he’d never get out.”

Including Roman Nose, the decision affects eight Minnesota inmates sentenced to life without parole for murders they committed as juveniles, said Perry Moriearty, a University of Minnesota law professor who represents two of the other defendants and has tracked all eight cases.

“They will tell you the lack of hope is the most excruciating part of this to bear,” she said.

The eight include Mahdi Hassan Ali, now 23, who was resentenced this month for the 2010 killings of three people at Seward Market and Halal Meat in Minneapolis. His new sentence of three consecutive life terms means he won’t be eligible for parole for 90 years. Monday’s decision could be grounds for reconsidering Ali’s sentence, Moriearty said, noting that the Supreme Court said life in prison for juvenile crimes should be only for the most heinous cases.

“Any sentence that’s a functional life-without-parole sentence should be suspect,” she said.

Five of the eight cases are from Hennepin County, where County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a statement that his office would evaluate them “with all due speed” to determine what, if anything, needs to be done to comply with Monday’s ruling.

The other cases originated in Redwood, Rice and Washington counties.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a partner of Forum Communications.