CHARDON - He was sentenced to life without a chance of parole for the shooting deaths of three Chardon High School classmates: Daniel Parmertor, Russell King and Demetrius Hewlin.
To the survivors, the sentence handed T.J. Lane offered some solace to a life-altering event. Under existing Ohio law, life without parole means exactly that: life without parole.
But three years later, a pair of proposed laws are working through Ohio's state legislature, each that would provide mercy to Lane, a killer who showed no mercy on Feb. 27, 2012.
One bill has already breezed through the House by a 92-4 vote. A similar bill is now poised for a Senate vote.
The house bill would allow juveniles sentenced to life without parole to apply for parole after 35 years. The senate bill is more lenient: allowing parole consideration when the offender reaches age 40.
The Ohio Public Defender’s Office said there are as many as nine Ohio inmates serving life without parole for killings committed as a juvenile.
About 62 inmates – serving lesser life sentences - would be affected by the law changes.
To Geauga County Prosecutor James Flaiz, both proposals are unnecessary. He points out that Lane lost his appeals even after the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court that banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences.
In Ohio, the sentences are not mandatory. Rather, a life with no parole sentence can only come when a trial judge makes certain findings, including taking into consideration the offender’s age. The new law would strip the judges of giving a true no-parole sentence to a juvenile. Instead, a parole board would decide how long an inmate serves.
"I don’t know why we're taking the parole eligibility decision away from judges elected by the community and handing it to a bunch of faceless bureaucrats in Columbus," Flaiz said. “There’s nothing driving this, no U.S. Supreme Court decision is making action necessary."
Sen. John Eklund, a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 272, said the competing bills are being made to better conform with a string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on juveniles sentenced to life without parole. He also said emerging science shows a juvenile’s brain is not fully formed until a person reaches his or her late 20s or 30s.
“What we’re trying to do is find ways for meaningful opportunities for release without opening the gates of hell for some very heinous actors,” Eklund said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Eklund said he understands the criticism, and said prosecutors have a “vested interest in resisting” the bills. But he added any law change is not likely to help killers like Lane.
Parole is rarely granted to convicted killers, he said, especially one who has killed three people and injured three others as Lane did.
“It could [help Lane], but the likelihood is pretty slim,” Eklund said.
Eklund’s assurances are of little comfort to Holly Walczak. Her son Nick was shot and left paralyzed during the Chardon High School shooting.
“He’s a violent criminal. He’s violent. What’s to say he’s not going to do this again,” she said. “My son will never get a second chance to walk and there’s 3 boys whose families won't get second chances to hug them."