Before Emond Gulley could vote or purchase a cigarette, a judge sentenced him to 51.5 years in prison. At 15 years old, Gulley, a Black high school student from Wichita, Kansas, claimed that police officers intimidated him into falsely confessing to his friend’s murder. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court, which has previously carved special protections for juveniles in the criminal legal system, declined to hear his appeal, thus affirming his sentence with no comment.
Four years ago, in the early morning hours of a Sunday in March, a security camera captured grainy footage of two teenagers walking alongside each other in Wichita when suddenly, one shot his companion, whom the police later identified as “T.C.” (The court abbreviated T.C.’s full name in official documents, which is customary for a minor.) Hours earlier, T.C., Tyrek Murrell, and Gulley were smoking weed and hanging out at Paige Selichnow’s house, a frequent gathering place for the group of friends. That night, T.C. and Murrell stole a 9-millimeter handgun from someone who showed up to Selichnow’s house intending to sell it.
Selichnow later testified that she saw T.C. “clinking” the gun around before T.C. and Murrell left for another friend’s house. When the police arrested Gulley outside of Selichnow’s house, he had the gun that T.C. and Murrell had stolen and that forensic experts would later identify as the murder weapon.
A few days later, Gulley would find himself in an interrogation room, surrounded and “outnumbered,” he said, by police officers accusing him of killing T.C. Gulley contradicted himself many times in that interrogation room. He claimed he didn’t go out that night, and then that he followed T.C. on a walk but parted ways before he was shot. Finally, he identified himself as the other person in the blurry video. He later recanted.
That Gulley walked back on his confession is no anomaly. It’s long been established that youth confessions to crimes are highly unreliable. Teens’ developing brains, especially the parts that control planning and decision-making for the future, make them susceptible to falsely confessing. They are likely to feel particular pressure from adult authority figures. “As adults, we’ve groomed kids to answer questions for adults,” Barbara Kaban, a former Massachusetts director of juvenile appeals, told the American Bar Association (ABA).
That may be why so many don’t take advantage of their right to remain silent. Roughly 90 percent of kids who are interrogated by police, according to the ABA, waive their rights to not answer officers’ questions, obtain a lawyer, and notify their parents that they are in custody. (The court record doesn’t indicate whether the police notified Gulley’s parents or a lawyer was present in the interrogation room.) In a study of exonerations between 1989 and 2004, researchers from the University of Virginia found that juveniles made false confessions in 42 percent of cases (compared with 13 percent of adult cases), and, among the youngest juvenile exonerees (12- to 15-year-olds), 69 percent confessed to homicides and rapes that they did not commit. According to the Innocence Project, it is even worse for Black youth like Gulley: More than 84 percent of conviction reversals for exonerees of color arrested as youth were due to false confessions.
Gulley would later testify in court that he felt pressured in the interrogation room and his mind wasn’t “functioning as it should be.” He also testified that he didn’t want to “snitch” on Murrell, whom he suspected of killing T.C. but still considered a friend. (Research by Daniel Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, showed that teens develop strong attachments with peers, and “membership with an adolescent peer group, even if it’s just one other person, can feel like a matter of life and death.”) Even though Gulley was a minor, the judge at his trial gave the jury an instruction to disregard his testimony about feeling pressured by police, claiming that Gulley’s ability to “hold his own” during the state’s questioning proved that the teenager wasn’t intimidated by authority.
Kansas initially tried Gulley as a juvenile, but the prosecutor later moved to charge him as an adult after Gulley beat a guard, stole her keys and radio, and let a fellow teenager out of his cell while in juvenile detention in June of 2018. Suddenly, Gulley was facing a minimum of 50 years in prison.
A sentence of that length for a minor stands out in a legal system that theoretically treats children and adults as fundamentally different. Minors sentenced in juvenile court receive significantly shorter sentences. A juvenile detention center can only incarcerate someone up until their early twenties. And states seal all juvenile records as confidential. In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that juries must consider an offender’s age before sentencing them to life in prison because children “lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.” The Court also explained that children’s brain development makes them “less culpable” and their still-forming characters make them more amenable to rehabilitation than adults.
But which children are afforded the protections of juvenile law in practice is, in part, based on race. Black children, according to a 2007 study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, are 18 times more likely to be tried as adults than white children. Since 2012, Black youth have made up 72 percent of minors with life sentences. This disparity seems to be a reflection of a punitive societal bias to deny Black kids of their childhood innocence. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that participants, mostly white male police officers and mostly white female college students, misjudged 13-year-old Black boys as 17-year-olds, generally saw Black youth as “less innocent” than their white counterparts, and were more likely to approve use of force against Black youth. Judges and juries send Black children to languish in prison because the criminal legal system sees and treats them as adults.
In Miller, the Court struck down all mandatory “life without parole” laws for juvenile offenders, holding that a “State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.” Still, it denied Gulley’s appeal even though that is exactly how Kansas executed Gulley’s criminal proceedings. Kansas law mandated a prison sentence of more than a half-century for a 15-year-old and forbade the jury from considering a high school student’s age as a mitigating factor in their decision. The Kansas Supreme Court that affirmed Gulley’s sentence did so on a technicality: Gulley wasn’t sentenced to “life without parole,” the court held, he was sentenced to 51.5 years without parole—two supposedly distinct punishments. It claimed that Miller doesn’t apply to Gulley’s sentence because the law he was convicted under doesn’t “ensure that Gulley will be executed by the State or live his entire life in prison.” He still has “a hope of restoration” because a parole board could release him within his lifetime.
One Kansas Supreme Court judge dissented from affirming Gulley’s sentence, noting that “for the average inmate serving their entire life in prison, a 50-year sentence means death in prison.” That’s in part because prison accelerates the aging process. An American Journal of Public Health study found that each year in prison declined incarcerated peoples’ life expectancy by two years. The judge cited an ACLU of Michigan report which stated that the average life expectancy of someone sentenced to life in prison was 58 years and only 56 years for Black people. For those sentenced as a minor, life expectancy was the lowest: 50.5 years. That life expectancy was one year less than the full sentence for Gulley, who will be in his mid-sixties by the time he is eligible for release.
Fifty-one years could very well constitute the rest of Gulley’s life. As a Black man sentenced as a minor, Gulley could spend it behind bars for mistakes he made as a 15-year-old boy—even though the law promises to treat kids as kids.