Amy's Story

photography by Sarah Fleming for the Juvenile Project

photography by Sarah Fleming for the Juvenile Project

Amy Breihan is assistant attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center. In this role, she works primarily with juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) clients who have served at least 25 years of their sentences. These individuals are eligible for re-sentencing, according to two supreme court decisions, Miller v. Alabama in 2012, which made LWOP sentences unconstitutional for juveniles and Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016, which made Miller retroactive to past cases (for more info, click here).

Interview with Amy Breihan, conducted by Joann Self Selvidge for The Juvenile Project (TJP) on March 03, 2017 at the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis, MO.

Joann: Okay. Tell me your name, and your position in the organization.

Amy Breihan: I'm Amy Breihan. I'm a Staff Attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis.

Joann: Okay. Tell me a little bit about your background, and what led you to do this kind of work.

Amy Breihan: I went to law school in Chicago, and started practicing there at a small firm, and came down to St. Louis in 2012. It was about that time that the Miller Decision came down which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, and Mae Quinn started organizing a statewide effort to get attorneys for Miller impacted individuals incarcerated in Missouri. That's how she and I came to know one another, and I got involved in some juvenile related work.

At that point, I was a trial attorney at Bryan Cave, which is a private firm here in St. Louis, so my bread and butter was commercial litigation which is a very different world. As a pro bono project, I started helping out on what we call the JLWOP cases and worked on them for years. In 2013, we filed habeas petitions on behalf of most, if not all, of the Miller impacted individuals, and those sat for three years in the Missouri Supreme Court before we finally received a decision. Anyway, was it last year I guess, 2016, I came over to MacArthur when we opened up the office here and working with Mae here since.

Joann: So, up until last June you were still at the private law firm?

Amy Breihan: Yes. Yeah, that’s where I started practicing in Chicago, and I just transferred to their office down here in St. Louis. So, until June of last year, I was doing primarily commercial litigation at Bryan Cave.

Joann: What was it that intrigued you about this? I mean, you said you started as pro bono, but what is it about this work that intrigues you? Why are you passionate about it?

Amy Breihan: Yeah. I’ve always wanted to get into civil rights work. When I was in law school, I worked at the Center on Wrongful Convictions which is one of the legal clinics at Northwestern, and just really loved the work. I mean, to be able to help individuals, and see a direct impact of the work even though it was at times frustrating and difficult, it was really rewarding. I stayed at my firm job, frankly, because my husband was in grad school and I had to support our family. It just so happened that this opportunity which I had always been looking for sort of in the background arose at a great time. I’d already always appreciated my pro bono work, doing civil rights stuff when I could, but was really grateful to make it a focus of my practice because it is so rewarding. I’ve always thought of being an attorney as a service job, and it’s harder, I think, to think of it that way when you’re working for corporations as opposed to individuals, and so I appreciate the opportunity to serve individual people -- especially people who are incarcerated or disenfranchised.

Joann: This is a personal question. Did becoming a mother change your perspective any on, specifically, juvenile work?

Amy Breihan: I don’t know that it changed my perspective, but it made it more personal for me. For example, our office represents, I think, eight or nine -- one’s sort of pending -- but eight or nine individuals who are impacted by Miller. They were incarcerated at a very young age when they were juveniles. Now they're in their 40s, so they're grown men, by I meet with their mothers and their family, and it’s hard not to think of it in a personal context of, like, this is someone’s baby that was locked up, and they’ve missed their whole life.

One client's mother, in particular, is talking about the prospect of him being released on parole. She’s like, “He just needs a mother, and he needs some mother time,” and so it’s very hard not to feel the weight of that on a more personal level now that I have two little boys at home, and to also go home, and my boys are white, and to say to them like, “You’re so lucky. Unfortunately, because of the color of your skin, things are going to be so much easier for you, and you have so much of a greater responsibility because of that.” I mean, my kids are three and one, but we're already trying to talk them about that. So, it’s become more personal, but I don’t know that my perspective has shifted significantly other than me feeling it more I guess.

Joann: Tell me, when you say there are eight or nine Miller-impacted individuals, are these all of the cases in this county, or across the state, or is there a greater number across the state?

Amy Breihan: There's a greater number of Miller-impacted individuals across the state. I think the total count is about 83 or 84. We been trying to get our finger on the exact number. They have been incarcerated for a range of years. The individuals we represent: they are sort of a sprinkling primarily in the city, but also some St. Louis County, some men who weren't convicted in St. Louis County, and also a couple from the western part of the state like Kansas City area. Just came to us through various ways. There wasn't necessarily any specific attempt to focus on one area of the state. It’s just the need is all across the state. Yeah.

Joann: Tell me some of the specifics of the Miller Decision, and how that translates here. For example, you mentioned the age of your clients. How much time did they have to serve before they became eligible to receive these new services? Give us an idea of the range [inaudible 00:06:08]. Just a background of what we're talking about.

Amy Breihan: Sure. Okay. Well, the Miller Decision sort of fits in this line of more recent opinions from the US Supreme Court that said kids are different, children are different, and so for purposes of sentencing in criminal prosecutions you have to take into consideration all these other factors especially before you impose a sentence as harsh as life without parole. That’s for a number of reasons. Primarily, the brain science of adolescents being different. They're more impulsive, more focused on the immediate reward as opposed to punishment in the future, more subject to peer pressure, and so they're different and the crimes they commit are different. It might not necessarily be what they refer to as a crime of irreparable corruptibility, but just transit immaturity. So, they said … I’m sorry, another point they made is that a life without parole sentence for a 30-year-old is significantly different from a life without parole sentence for like a 15-year-old or 16-year-old just because of the age of the individual at the time, and the length of what the sentence will actually be in a term of years.

How that decision has been interpreted by states is varied. What Missouri ended up doing eventually, and I say eventually because, as I mentioned earlier, our request for relief sat for three years with the Missouri Supreme Court before they eventually ruled on them, and it wasn’t until after the US Supreme Court said that this Miller Decision applies retroactively to cases on collateral view not just cases on direct appeal. Eventually, the Missouri Supreme Court and then the legislature said, “Okay, for anybody who as a juvenile was sentenced to mandatory life without parole, you can petition for a review of your sentence to the parole board after having served 25 years on your life without parole sentence.” Our clients fall into that category of individuals. They have served 25 years or more, or thereabouts, and are now potentially eligible for parole. We are turning our focus, in part now, to trying to get these guys parole grants which in Missouri is very difficult.

Joann: What is a parole grant?

Amy Breihan: It’s just a, basically, an out date. It's saying, “We're going to release you from prison, and as long as you follow certain conditions of parole that you won’t be back here.”

Joann: Of your clients, what’s the youngest age at which they were given their sentence?

Amy Breihan: Well, I believe our youngest is Norman Brown, who Mae primarily works with. He was 15 at the time of the crime. In fact, he wasn’t even the trigger man so to speak. He was just present. I think he has - going to have to check with her on this - but I think he has a sentence of life without parole, plus life, plus 90, to run consecutively. For a 15-year-old who didn’t pull the trigger. Now, I have a client who had just turned 17 like a month before his crime, and now he’s 47 years old, and he just had his hearing on Wednesday of this week. We're hopeful that he’s going to get a grant and be released, right? We'll see.

Joann: Can you tell me... One of the stories you mentioned - the first young man who was 15 - but can you tell me one of the stories that really stands out in your mind of these individuals you can share? I mean, you’ve mentioned a couple.

Amy Breihan: Do you want me to wait for this siren first?

Joann: Yes, [inaudible 00:10:00]. We can cough, and do all of our loud stuff now that the sirens are going through.

Amy Breihan: Well, for me the stories that stand out are stories about these men as they’ve been in prison. Not necessarily stories about their crimes. I think of a client of mine who was 17 years old at the time of his crime. These guys, my understanding is that they were thrown into Potosi Correctional Center which is where death row is. Which is a maximum-security prison. So, you imagine all these kids - some of them very small in stature - being thrown in with these adult inmates. One of my clients was there. He immediately got training to work as like a suicide prevention specialist at 18 or 19 years old, and he was down in the ad-seg working with people who are on suicide watch.

One of the men there was deaf, and couldn’t communicate except through signs. My client didn’t understand sign language. He couldn’t speak sign language, so he taught himself some sign language and the alphabet so that he could communicate with this man. That to me is indicative of who our clients are, and these generous and caring focused people. Not this scared 17-year-old who went out drinking with friends one night, got aroused, and then committed this horrible crime. Yeah, again, to me, our clients are so much more than the one incident which unfortunately led to their incarceration.

I think there are lots of stories like that of just informal mentoring or tutoring. A lot of these guys are mentors to younger inmates that come in because they have just a whole different perspective. I mean, they grew up in prison with the expectation they would never get out, and now they do have some hope, but really most of them have had this tremendous perspective, and using to mentor younger inmates about, “What are you going to do when you get out? How you going to ensure that you don’t get back here, and how are you going to make the most of the time that you have here?”

Joann: Could you talk about that perspective that you’ve witnessed? Like, you mentioned the death row inmates, and how that’s reflected, or how that inspired maybe some of your current clients?

Amy Breihan: Yeah. As I mentioned, they were - initially at least - put down in Potosi, which is where death row is, and a number of my clients mentioned that when they were there those men on death row were mentors to them. They sort of took them under their wing at a time when they were very vulnerable and scared and taught them how to survive. More than that, taught them how to thrive in a way. You know, do the best that you can in circumstances like that. Which was both really rewarding for these men, but also very difficult because they’d go up and be executed, and so they would have this mentor that'd been working with them, and advising them, and helping them survive, and then be killed by the state of Missouri which I think is just illustrative of growing up in prison. Like, “That’s what you get.” You know, you just get these horrible circumstances. You might be neat, really wonderful people, but then they end up getting killed by the state of Missouri.

I don’t know. To me, that’s just … I just found that so interesting, but I’m sure that that had some influence on our clients with respect to encouraging them to themselves to become mentors to other inmates. I’m sure it did. I’m trying to think of a more articulate way to talk about that, but for me, I don’t know, it just seems like a really strong example of what it was like for them to grow up in prison. To have these role models taken away from them like that. I don’t know why, but I’m not very articulate about it.

Joann: Well, you mentioned hope. I imagine if you're sentenced to die in prison, you know, you’re not going to get executed by the state, but you will eventually die in prison if that’s your sentence. I imagine that it gives you a different perspective from somebody who’s going to get out in 10 or 15 years?

Amy Breihan: For sure. Unfortunately, a client of mine told me before the Miller Decision and before, actually primarily, before his nieces and nephews were born, he said, “I’m not going to serve 40 years in here. One way or another I’ll find a way.” Essentially, and my interpretation of that, was he was going to end his own life if he could rather than live out his natural life in prison. For him, thankfully, he has a really strong family in the St. Louis area, and when his brother and his sister had children that renewed some hope in him, and he mentors them and speaks with them. I think that helped keep him going.

Joann: Have any of your clients been resentenced and released yet?

Amy Breihan: No. Missouri is taking the position that they will not be getting a resentencing. That’s what we were trying to seek when we first filed their habeas petitions with the Missouri Supreme Court. We said, “At the time on the books the sentence for a juvenile offender who committed first-degree murder was either death or life without parole, and now that those are both unconstitutional,” we were saying, “there’s no constitutional sentence on the books. You need to resentence everybody.” They said, “No.” They essentially said, “Without changing the sentences go to the parole board.” They are taking the position that all of our clients are not entitled to a resentencing, but instead just have the right to go to the parole board after 25 years. I should say after 25 years on the life without parole sentence.

Most, if not all, of our clients, have multiple sentences that either run consecutively or concurrently, and depending on what those sentences are or what the offenses are they're being, in some instances, not given the right to a hearing after 25 years. This is not a client of ours, but in another case, an individual has two life without parole sentences, and they run consecutively. The parole board said, “You can have your hearing because the bill says so, but you have to serve 50 years -- 25 on each of the life without. I’m not sure of the kid's age, but he was 17 or younger at the time of his crime. So, let’s say 67 by the time he gets his first look at a parole hearing, and they feel like that is Miller relief.

Joann: As a private attorney, and in this state, and someone who wasn’t originally working in juvenile or even criminal defense, what was your awareness of the idea that… Or how did you come to an awareness of this concept of juveniles needing more specialized defense, and now that you’re in this position what is your awareness about how people are coming to that realization?

Amy Breihan: Well, to be honest, I really didn’t have much knowledge of it until I started working on the JLWOP cases pro bono, and even more so since I’ve started working more closely with Mae -- she being a specialist in juvenile justice, juvenile law. I really wasn’t aware of it myself. I would hope that there is a growing public awareness of the need for special considerations for youth, but I think it likely varies geographically, and I think Missouri kind of runs behind the times in a lot of respects. It’s a pretty conservative state, so I’m not encouraged that the public statewide, necessarily, is aware of the issues confronting juveniles. I do think that Department of Justice coming to St. Louis County maybe helped that a little bit, but I don’t know. I’m not sure what the public thinks about, or what they know about what goes on.

Joann: I mean, attorneys in general. Have you... I know the National Juvenile Defender Center has regional locations that offer services, and training, and such. Is there one in this area?

Amy Breihan: I don’t know. Yeah. That'd be a good question for Mae. Again, this is new to me. I was just thinking about I haven’t even been here a year I guess. I was representing organizations, private organizations, huge organizations, and doing commercial work primarily. The civil rights as my primary focus is new, and then also juvenile law is wholly new to me, so I’m just trying to absorb it all from Mae. I’m not aware of whether NJDC has a local training clinic or anything like that.

Joann: Did you grow up in the Chicago area and then come here, or did you grow up somewhere else and then go to law school? Where did you grow up?

Amy Breihan: I mainly grew up in rural Wisconsin in a town of like 4,500 people. Real small. Out in the country. I went to college in Grinnell, Iowa, and then I moved to Chicago. I was in Chicago for about seven or eight years before I came down to St. Louis. Our initial plan was to go back, but St. Louis has a way of kind of drawing you in. At first, I was like, “Oh, this is a very easy place to live,” and now I see it’s a very easy place to live for some. It’s a very, very difficult place to live for a lot of people, and so I feel compelled to stay because of that.

Joann: Awesome. Well, since your area is specific to the JLWOP, I think that we covered that. Is there anything else that you want to talk about specifically?

Amy Breihan: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Mm-mm (negative). I will say on the JLWOP stuff, we represent a number of people, but there also a few other attorneys around the state that are holding on and representing some Miller impacted individuals too. A couple attorneys at Husch Blackwell. A couple private attorneys in the western part of the state. The public defender was representing a number of them in the state court, but once their relief was denied they dropped, so there are probably 50 or so Miller impacted individuals who don’t have attorneys advising them about federal habeas relief or advising them about petitioning the parole board for a review of their sentence. In some way, it’s sort of back to square one in 2012 where all these individuals have the potential for relief, but may not necessarily know how to get there, and don’t have an attorney advising them how to get there.

Joann: Are there other states that can give you guidance at all? Like, “Look, this is the best practice for the way this is being handled in other states,” so that you could encourage your… Like, what is your ideal? I mean, obviously, we know what your ideal would be, but in terms of helping the reforms to move along have you had any specific best practices or specific ways that this has been carried out in other states that you would want Missouri to emulate?

Amy Breihan: Well, I don’t know that there’s any perfect model out there, and Missouri seems to have made it clear we’re stuck with parole. If that’s the case, operating from that assumption, it would be nice if there were some more due process protections involved in that. I think Massachusetts has the right to counsel at parole hearings. Might even have the right to present witnesses and evidence in support.

In Missouri, you don’t even get to see what the board has on you -- what’s in their file. They record the proceedings, but you’re not allowed to have that recording. You’re only allowed to have one person in the room, and the expectation is it’s a family member, and it has been strongly suggested to our clients by their institutional parole officers that if it’s their attorney in the room it’s going to cost them. There is some definite room for improvement in the parole process in Missouri, but I don’t think that there’s any state that necessarily is doing it perfectly, unfortunately. It’s kind of a tricky thing to deal with.

Joann: Okay. Well, thank you.

Amy Breihan: Sure. Hopefully, that’s somewhat helpful.