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Sentenced to life at 16, woman hopes for freedom

Saturday - 2/16/2013, 6:40pm  ET

This Oct. 17, 2012 photo shows framed pictures of James Cotaling, who was murdered in 1990, at the home of his younger sister, Jody Robinson, in Davisburg, Mich. Robinson is very outspoken against reconsidering the sentences of juvenile offenders serving life without parole. Her views are shaped by her family’s own heartbreak and anger at the loss of Cotaling. One of the two people convicted in his murder was 16 at the time. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

ADAM GELLER
AP National Writer

YPSILANTI, Mich. (AP) -- More than 21 years after she went to prison, Barbara Hernandez enters the cinderblock visitation chamber at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in the turquoise blouse with applique flowers she keeps for special occasions. Her makeup is carefully applied but cannot hide the age lines that spread, thin but unmistakable, from the corners of her eyes.

"Thank you for coming," the 38-year-old inmate says softly. Her eyes, chestnut and brooding, are offset by a gentle smile. She holds out a hand in welcome.

And in that moment it is up to the visitor to begin weighing the choice the gesture offers: Is this the hand of a criminal who lured a man she'd never met to a brutal death and must be locked away forever? Or does it belong to a long-ago girl, who left home in rural Michigan at 14 only to end up in an abandoned house outside Detroit with a boyfriend who pimped her, and who now deserves a second chance?

There are more than 2,000 Barbara Hernandezes in this country -- men and women sentenced to live and die in prison for murders committed when they were teens. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a long-awaited ruling, wrestling with questions that have confounded the justice system for years: Should teens convicted of the most brutal crimes be punished just like adults? Or should their youth matter?

The ruling was dense with legal references and focuses on faraway cases. But in its 64 pages, the court offered new hope to inmates in 28 states.

"Imposition of a State's most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court's majority.

Despite the justices' strong words, they declined to settle the many complex questions inherent in resolving these cases. Instead, they left it to people in statehouses and courthouses, in living rooms and law offices and prison cells. In Michigan and many other states, the challenge now is to decide whether, and how, this new standard of fairness is supposed to confront the stern justice of the past.

That won't be easy. In the closing hours of Hernandez's trial, the prosecutor urged jurors to focus solely on her role in killing James Cotaling, a 28-year-old auto mechanic who, on a Saturday night in May 1990, told his fiancee he was going out to buy a Mother's Day card at Kmart, but never came home.

"This would be the type of case where it would be easy to feel sorry for Barbara Hernandez, but you all promised me at jury selection that sympathy would play no role in your deliberations," said the prosecutor, Donna Pendergast.

"You can't look at who this defendant is. You have to look at what she did."

Now, more than two decades later, the Supreme Court says that is not enough. But to comply with the court's words will take more than just a change in legal process. It could well force the system to revisit the distant past and appraise its meaning, to again confront the details of terrible crimes and to take measure of childhoods left behind long, long ago.

___

In 1987, the year Barbara Hernandez turned 13, her mother moved the family from New Mexico to live near relatives in Capac, Mich., population 1,700, whose two-block downtown is set in farmland on the state's eastern shoulder.

The move put fresh distance between the family and Theodore Hernandez, arrested in 1984 for molesting the oldest of his three daughters and his wife's sister. Records show he served three years in prison for criminal sexual penetration.

But another relative, who has never been charged, soon began molesting the two younger Hernandez girls, abuse recounted by all three sisters and noted by a state social worker who evaluated Hernandez before she was sentenced. The women say their mother knew for years what both men were doing, but either denied the abuse or blamed it on her daughters.

"She said it was my fault," Elizabeth Evans, the oldest, said in a recent interview. "I started my period when I was 10 years old and my mom beat me for that reason, stating that it was because I let my dad do things to me. I got hit with the wire part of fly swatters, with extension cords."

Hernandez's mother drank heavily, often leaving the children to take care of themselves. The youngest, Andrea Waple, recalls being in kindergarten when she was given a key and told to let herself in to the empty house. Hernandez skipped school to come to pick her up, stirring their mother's anger.

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