NEW BOSTON — Scottie Forcey nervously drummed his fingers behind the thick glass in the Telford Unit’s visiting room as the camera shutter snapped, capturing images of the 21-year-old convicted murderer.
“I want some pictures. I ain’t seen myself in like," he paused to count on his fingers, “five years. I know I look different. Check it out.” He pressed his prison ID card against the glass. In the photo, a plumper, baby-faced 17-year-old stared at the camera.
Forcey was convicted in 2009 of fatally shooting Karen Burke, a 52-year-old Alvarado convenience store clerk. He is the youngest of 23 Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmates who were younger than 18 when they were convicted of capital murder and received mandatory sentences of life without parole. Those inmates could get the chance to be parole eligible after serving 40 years in prison as legislators work to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that sentences of life without parole for 17-year-old murderers violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Either the courts or Gov. Rick Perry could change such sentences in Texas. Both are waiting for legislators to decide what punishment juveniles like Forcey should face. Lawmakers, who failed to pass legislation in two sessions this year, are trying now for a third time.
In Texas, 17-year-olds have faced the same sentencing options as adults convicted of capital murder: the death penalty and life without parole. In 2005, the Supreme Court prohibited the death penalty for anyone younger than 18, deciding that less-developed brains of juveniles rendered them less culpable. That left only life without parole as punishment for 17-year-olds.
After last year’s Miller v. Alabama ruling, prosecutors said they had no sentencing options for 17-year-old killers. They have asked lawmakers to make them subject to the same punishment that Texas law requires for 14- to 16-year-old capital murderers: life with parole eligibility after 40 years.
Harris County Assistant District Attorney Lance Long recently told lawmakers that until they decide on a sentencing option, such murder trials across Texas are on hold.
“None of these cases are anything but very, very, very serious,” he said.
The Texas Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee has approved a bill that would require a sentence of life with parole eligibility after 40 years. The House, however, has indicated it wants to give juries the option to sentence 17-year-olds to life without parole if other factors — such as evidence of abuse or mental illness — are considered.
In previous sessions this year, the chambers approved bills addressing the sentencing question, but time ran out before they got final approval.
When lawmakers decide on a new sentencing scheme, Perry has told prosecutors he would consider recommending commutation for inmates like Forcey who were sentenced under the old law.
“It really only seems fair and just,” said Justin Wood, legislative liaison for the Harris County district attorney’s office in Houston.
Forcey said he did not pull the trigger in Burke’s 2008 murder. He said he was targeted because he ran with the wrong crowd.
Now, he said, “I wouldn’t put myself in that situation.”
Forcey has spent most of the last four years in isolation, punishment for fights he said were constant when he first arrived.
“I grew up back there,” he said.
Asked about the possibility that his sentence could be commuted, Forcey was ambivalent. Forty years, he said, is too long. Then, a wide smile peeled across his face. He figures he will be out by December. He spent those years in isolation researching his case and plans to file another appeal.
“My mind’s already set,” he said. “I’m going home — wherever home is.”