Story by Mary Meldrum
CLINTON HUBBELL IS A RESIDENT OF FERNDALE, AN ATTORNEY, AND PARTNER IN HUBBELL DUVALL, PLLC IN SOUTHFIELD. He has worked since 2008 for justice for juveniles sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment. His advocacy for children began out of a devotion to his client, Cortez Davis, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1993. As a result of Hubbell’s diligence, Davis was granted parole this year.
Hubbell specializes in civil law, but Davis was his first client. That’s right: Clinton Hubbell has followed and fought for this young man for 24 years. “This is a labor of love,” Hubbell confesses. “This case gives meaning to my work.”
Cortez Davis was convicted of first degree murder, even though he was not the shooter at an armed robbery in 1993. Davis’ co-defendant, Michael Scott, admitted to shooting the victim. Davis was there, didn’t kill anyone, but was guilty of the murder by virtue of his presence and contributing to the robbery. In Michigan, in 1994, there was only one sentence available for murder: life without parole. Davis received that sentence.
Judge Vera Massey Jones, who presided over the case in Wayne County Recorders Court, held that the mandatory juvenile life-without-parole sentence was unconstitutional in 1994. “The judge, she said over and over again that she thought he was innocent of felony murder,” Hubbell says. “That is what initially got me interested. I have never heard a judge be so active in defense of someone.”
Hubbell took up the case, and in 1994 argued that Judge Jones was right. Davis had been railroaded by a bunch of Michigan laws that stacked up against juveniles. The first such law stated that if you are accused of murder, you are automatically tried as an adult. Then Michigan’s felony murder rule states that if you are present and guilty of an offense during the commission of murder, you are guilty of the murder, too.
Following those two laws, under mandatory sentencing, a judge does not have any discretion to sentence a juvenile to anything but life in prison. The law makes no distinction between adults and juveniles. This set of laws has affected over 300 juveniles in Michigan over decades. At the age of 16, Davis fell into the perfect storm of these legal parameters.
In a 2010 court battle, Hubbell relied on Graham-versus-Florida, a U.S. Supreme Court case that states that juveniles cannot be sentenced for life for non-homicide events. Trial courts shot down his Graham defense in 2010.
Then in 2012, in another landmark case, Miller-versus-Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court, found it unconstitutional for a state to implement mandatory life sentences for juveniles for any crime. Life without parole is available for the worst offenders, but it cannot be mandatory. Juveniles are entitled to a hearing to determine re-sentencing.
Following the Miller-versus-Alabama case, Hubbell spent four more years of legal jousting to drive a decision about whether the Miller decision could be applied retroactively.His argument landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, but another case found that Miller does apply retroactively and juveniles sentenced prior to 2012 could take advantage of it.
In 2014, the Michigan legislature began to act, and juveniles started to get re-sentenced under “Miller hearings.” In April of 2017, Davis had his hearing. He was sentenced to 25 to 60 years, and he became parole-eligible. He was granted parole and is eligible for release in September of 2018 – just a few months away.
Davis grew up and lived under dire circumstances in a bad home in Detroit. His father died when he was very young; Davis was taken from his mother a few times by the state when he was a little boy, and drugs were found in the house.
Served by only an eighth-grade education at the time of his sentencing, Davis persevered under his tragic circumstances and life sentence. He obtained his GED, studied and became fluent in American Sign Language. He became a master horticulturist, and completed several trades programs while in prison.
What is impressive about his achievements is that with a life sentence he was not granted access to many of the resources available to other prisoners. Davis has demonstrated remarkable tenacity under the darkest of circumstances.
After 24 years of fighting for his vulnerable client, Hubbell has been shifting toward helping Davis assemble the numerous resources he needs once he finally gets out of prison. His hope is to use what he finds as a model to give guidance to other lawyers about what to tell clients and how to help them when they get out of prison.
“These were children when they went into the system. Most were never properly socialized, never worked a real job, most have little or no family structure, many have dropped out of school and are illiterate, and they had not finished developing mentally when they were imprisoned,” Hubbell explains.
Hubbell is working on developing a protocol of sorts for others like Davis; aligning the necessary resources to get work, and especially a place to live. As Davis’ resource manager, Hubbell’s advocacy is shifting to securing a safe and conducive environment for Davis to emerge into post-incarceration.
“Maybe we are not the sum of the worst thing we have done. Something draws me to that idea. There still needs to be punishment for crimes, but there is more to a person than the crime that put them behind bars.”
If you are interested in contributing time or resources, please reach out to Clint Hubbell at email@example.com