Sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as an adolescent, Victor Lee Polk has been released from prison today after a decades-long fight for review of his case. Led by Theodore Seitz, Erin Sedmak and Ryan VanOver, a pro bono team of defense lawyers at national law firm Dykema in April defeated the State’s motion to re-sentence him to a life without the possibility of parole sentence and secured a term-of-years sentence from the Genesee County’s 7th Judicial Circuit Court making Polk immediately eligible for parole. The parole board found that Polk should be released after 28 years of time served for his offenses.
“Throughout his time in prison, Victor has transformed from a naïve teenager into a mature and peaceful adult. He is the exemplification of the reasoning set forth in the United States Supreme Court’s case Miller v. Alabama, which describes how the commonsense understanding of children is different from adults and that adolescent brain development must be considered as a factor in sentencing,” said Sedmak. “This case reflects the ongoing importance of performing legal services for those who cannot afford them to reduce societal inequities and improve the lives of those in our communities.”
In 1993 at the age of 17, Polk was involved in the armed robbery of a party store gone awry. After Polk’s peers prompted him to shoot his gun in the air out of the getaway car window, the bullet ricocheted and killed Kevin Clark, an unknown bystander who had just exited his vehicle in the store parking lot. Even though there was no intention to kill the victim, because the victim died during the commission of the robbery, a felony, Michigan law required Polk to be treated as an adult and was sentenced to automatic and mandatory life without parole in 1994.
Since Polk’s original sentencing, federal law has recognized that automatic and mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences, without consideration of factors unique to the juvenile offender and case, are unconstitutional. In the 2012 case of Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court established criteria to assess potential resentencings of juvenile lifers: the defendant’s chronological age and its hallmark features, the defendant’s family and home environment, the circumstances of the defendant’s homicide offense, the defendant’s conduct leading up to and during the trial, and the defendant’s possibility of rehabilitation. Michigan state law was amended after its laws were deemed unconstitutional.
Because Polk was a minor at the time of his sentencing, he was entitled to a Miller hearing, in which the Michigan circuit court evaluated these factors against his case. The Dykema team presented testimony from two experts, a brain scientist and a psychologist, who explained that adolescents often engage in risky behaviors, in which they are at increased risk of poor decision-making because their brains are still in development. They further testified to the adverse effects of a child’s environment on an individual’s susceptibility to peer pressure and likelihood of risky behavior. Also considering Polk’s educational and work records, use of rehabilitative services, and significant maturation while in prison, they expressed that the Miller factors mitigated his culpability and weighed against a life without parole sentence.
Assessing Polk’s case against the Miller factors, and mirroring the language found in the Miller decision, the court held that Polk’s crimes do not reflect “irreparable corruption,” but rather his “unfortunate yet transient immaturity” as a youth. With his reduced sentencing, Polk was immediately eligible for parole. After a parole hearing, and a vote by the parole board, Polk was then granted release.
“Throughout the past decades, I’ve created an enriching environment for myself, obtaining my GED and participating in mindfulness and vocational training programs. I’ve learned and grown during the time I’ve served, and I’m ready to move forward,” Polk said. “I’m excited to spend time with my family and friends, and to build a positive future for myself.”
Dykema’s Longstanding Commitment to Pro Bono
Dykema believes the practice of law, especially in a large corporate firm, is a privilege that carries with it profound societal responsibilities. Performing legal services for those who cannot afford to pay for them—or for organizations that benefit such persons—is a central part of the firm’s effort to improve the quality of life for the underserved in its community.
More information on Dykema's pro bono program is available at: www.dykema.com/probono.html.