John F. Kennedy was the US President when 17-year-old Sheldry Topp killed a man and received an automatic sentence of life without parole in a Michigan county court.
After serving more than 56 years behind bars, 74-year-old Sheldry left prison a free man on Thursday and headed for a steak dinner with his brother.
Topp was the oldest “juvenile lifer” in Michigan before his release. Two US Supreme Court decisions changed Topp’s life.
In 2012 the Supreme Court decided that sentencing a minor to an automatic sentence of life in prison without a chance at parole was unconstitutional and represented “cruel and unusual punishment,” even if the juvenile was convicted of murder.
In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled the law should be applied to prisoners retroactively, a decision that gave Topp another chance at life in society.
On Tuesday, Topp appeared in front of a judge for the reconsideration of his sentence. The prosecution sought to resentence Topp to life without parole.
Prosecutors argued that Topp did not act out of youthful immaturity when he fatally stabbed a man in 1962, and said he is “irreparably corrupt,” according to court documents. The Oakland County Prosecutor did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Topp never appealed his conviction, but was denied a commuted sentence in 1987 and 2008. He has served much of his prison time in a facility near Lake Michigan with the minimum level of security.
When Judge James Alexander resentenced Topp to 40-60 years in prison on Tuesday, Topp had already served 56 years and accrued more than 10 years’ worth of good behavior credits, allowing him to be released without a parole hearing, said Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
“I’m really feeling good about it. I don’t know how I’ll feel tomorrow, but I don’t think I’ll feel less good,” Topp said, laughing, minutes after walking outside the prison fence.
Topp, who uses a walker after having a stroke in 2016, plans to stay with family, whom he says has supported him throughout his prison term.
A life of violence
Topp was captured in Chicago in 1962 less than two weeks after fatally stabbing Charles Davis, 50, after Topp broke into Davis’ house.
The teenage Topp confessed, saying he waited until dark outside a house that he thought looked like “anybody with money lived,” broke in, grabbed a kitchen knife and went to steal money from a bedroom dresser. When Davis discovered Topp and began fighting with him, he stabbed the man four times, then stole Davis’ car and cut the phone line before fleeing to Chicago, according to court documents.
Topp had been in and out of mental institutions since age 12, according to court documents, and said he had sneaked out of a mental institution in Pontiac, Michigan, the day of the murder. Records show that doctors gave him electroshock treatment and hydrotherapy, a treatment in which a person is wrapped tightly in wet sheets.
Topp was abused by his father from a young age, including frequent beatings with an extension cord, according to court documents. Topp’s sister testified she witnessed their father beating him with a baseball bat and records show he was put in a juvenile home after begging his mother not to make him return to his own home.
Medical experts testified in Topp’s resentencing that he was a child under duress and is not beyond the ability to be rehabilitated.
Topp completed rehabilitation programs, took academic courses and worked various jobs during his life in prison, court records show.
“It was something I had to do if I ever wanted to get out of jail. I had to do that. But then I started learning a lot of things that made me think about why I did what I did and understand why I shouldn’t do them,” Topp said.
Topp said toward the end of his father’s life, they reached “a small understanding” and exchanged birthday cards each year.
Juveniles in prison
The Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group, released a study around the time of the 2012 Supreme Court ruling. The group found that 47% of juveniles serving a life without parole sentence had been physically abused and 77% of girls serving sentences said they had been sexually abused.
In the Supreme Court decision, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, wrote, “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
Prosecutors can still seek no-parole life sentences under certain circumstances, but the Supreme Court ruling said minors typically cannot be given an automatic life-without-parole prison term.
Twenty-nine states still allow juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole, with most cases in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Louisiana, according to The Sentencing Project.
In Michigan, there were 359 other individuals like Topp who were serving life without parole for a crime they committed as a minor when the Supreme Court determined that they had a right to a resentencing.
Since then, 82 have been released on parole and 151 have been resentenced, according to Gautz.
Five people have been resentenced to life without parole as of January 2019, Gautz said.