Ruling could affect sentence given to murderer of Thorsby girls

Published 5:28 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding mandatory life sentences for murderers could impact a case with local ties.

The court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that states could not impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.

That ruling could affect the case of Mark Anthony Duke, who was convicted of four murders in 1997, while he was 16. Those killed included 7-year-old Chelsea and 6-year-old Chelisa Hunt, who were Thorsby School students.

Tara Jewell, aunt of the two Hunt girls, received a letter from state Attorney General Luther Strange, alerting her to the possibility that the case could be revisited.

“They haven’t let us know for sure if it’s going to affect our case,” Jewell said.

Duke received a mandatory life-without-parole sentence upon his conviction in 1999, but the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles have a right to a sentencing hearing, where they can argue that they deserve a sentence of less than life-without-parole.

Shelby County District Attorney Robby Owens said an appellate court will now have to decide whether the Supreme Court’s ruling is procedural or constitutional. If it’s procedural, Duke’s sentence would likely stand. If it’s constitutitonal, Duke might be due a sentencing hearing.

“People just don’t realize how hard it is to go to a hearing like that,” Jewell said. “You have to talk about everything that happened again. It’s just fresh wounds.

“It’s really not fair what they’re doing to the victims.”

Owens said the Supreme Court decision doesn’t say juveniles can’t be given life-without-parole, just that they can’t be automatically given that sentence without a hearing. Owens indicated he wouldn’t expect much of a change if Duke were re-sentenced.