A few weeks ago I helped report a story that involved the US Supreme Court, the MN Supreme Court, murder and a family stricken by tragedy. It was a huge learning experience for me, navigating the court systems, understanding judicial lingo and figuring out how to talk to a father about his murdered daughter. I couldn’t have done it without my colleague Kevin Giles. This post includes the original article (which was featured on A1 of the Star Tribune) as well as a follow-up article when the MN Supreme Court issued a ruling.
Clasping his big hands in anger, Jim Stuedemann talked about the rage he felt 13 years ago when he saw his daughter’s killer in the courtroom.
“I stared daggers at him. My one great regret in life is that I didn’t kill him the first time I saw him,” Stuedemann said of Tony Roman Nose, who was 17 when he stabbed and raped 18-year-old Jolene Stuedemann in a vicious attack in her family’s Woodbury home in 2000.
“I thought, ‘I could take care of this now.’ My eyes must have lit up or something because as I watched, the bailiff to my right looked at me and shook his head no.”
Roman Nose, convicted of first-degree murder while committing criminal sexual conduct, was sentenced to life in prison without hope of parole — or so the Stuedemann family thought.
Now, because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Jim and Jeanne Stuedemann and their surviving daughter, Jessica, find themselves living the nightmare all over again.
In a swift change of legal fate, Roman Nose could leave prison after he serves 30 years, in 2031. The thought terrifies the Stuedemanns, who believe he will kill again and that he will target Jeanne or Jessica.
“We don’t believe that he should ever be let out,” Jim Stuedemann said. “No family should ever have to go through what we went through. As long as there’s a chance that he could reoffend, just having the potential is nerve-wracking.”
A legal quandary
The Roman Nose case re-emerged in 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller vs. Alabama that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentences for juveniles who commit murder and that judges should decide whether life sentences should include parole.
About 2,500 teenage murderers nationwide are sentenced to prison without parole.
After a Washington County district judge resentenced Roman Nose to prison with the possibility of release after 30 years, the county attorney’s office appealed the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court on grounds that the judge didn’t allow a hearing to determine whether a reduced sentence was justified.
A second legal question, said County Attorney Pete Orput, is why retroactive sentences should be granted even though the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t address that issue. Orput solidly backs the family’s position.
“If I take someone else’s life, do I get the opportunity to enjoy mine?” he said last week. “The victims’ families are relegated to a life of sadness. They’ve been given their own prison sentence. When people say, ‘We shouldn’t put children in prison,’ I say, ‘He didn’t hesitate to put other people in their own psychological prison.’ ”
Roman Nose, now 31, is one of eight teenage murderers in Minnesota who went to prison before the Miller ruling and could be affected by it. Collectively, they killed 10 people.
Timothy Chambers was 17 when he rammed a stolen car into the squad car of a Rice County deputy, killing him. After Miller, he appealed to the state Supreme Court for a reduced sentence but was denied. But the Roman Nose appeal raises questions about whether the Chambers ruling would apply to all types of first-degree murder.
Meanwhile, two bills before the Legislature seek to mitigate state law requiring prison without parole for teenagers who commit first-degree murder. Neither has gained much traction.
“The thinking is that juveniles don’t have a fully developed mind and they’re prone to impulsive and stupid acts and that should be factored in,” Orput said. “But I think the bigger question is, where is that line between immature and mature? What about two months before you’re 18? Two weeks before you’re 18? Is there something magic about the number 18? …
“Can someone, a kid or adult, do something so heinous that they forfeit their right to be a part of society? I think that’s the big question.”
Torture and nightmares
Jim and Jeanne Stuedemann were vacationing in northern Minnesota in July 2000 when Jessica found Jolene’s body. She had been stabbed 29 times with a screwdriver and raped. Roman Nose crammed newspaper into her mouth and throat to stifle her screams.
Jolene and Roman Nose were students at an alternative school in Cottage Grove, but knew each other only as acquaintances. During a recent hearing before the state Supreme Court, public defender Steven Russett said Roman Nose was “immature and suffered from poor judgment” when he committed the crime, and noted a dysfunctional childhood and fetal alcohol struggles. Russett couldn’t be reached for comment.
Minnesota Department of Corrections records show that Roman Nose has committed 15 violations at Oak Park Heights prison, including disorderly conduct, disobeying direct orders and assaulting another inmate. Some violations were serious enough that he served time in segregation.
Jim Stuedemann recalled what the medical examiner told him during the trial.
“He said very rarely does he have autopsies with that amount of injuries that were suffered,” Stuedemann said, his eyes filling with tears. “He said it was borderline torture. I asked him if she died quickly and he said no.”
Liz Hare, president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, said it’s critically important for families to know that killers will remain in custody and never threaten anyone again.
“There’s unnecessary suffering caused by Miller vs. Alabama,” said Hare, who lives in Minnesota. “They have to relive that whole experience all over again. There are hundreds of people who will have to face the offender again.”
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, director of Marsy’s Law for Illinois, a group that advocates for the rights of crime victims, said the law should take care of victims’ families more than teenage murderers.
“All of this focus is on the killer, the poor killer, the young killer,” she said. “There aren’t any words to tell you how bad it is. It’s retraumatizing. It’s torture. It’s a nightmare. There aren’t strong-enough words. To never have any legal finality in the case and have to keep revisiting it is nothing short of a torturous nightmare.”
Jim Stuedemann said he wishes he could post Jolene’s photo in Roman Nose’s cell to remind him of her “bright smile and sparkling eyes every day and know what he took.”
Of Roman Nose, he added: “He should never have hope.”
By Kevin Giles and Callie Sacarelos
A Woodbury killer’s hope of someday getting out of prison ended Wednesday when the Minnesota Supreme Court reinstated his original sentence of life without parole.
Tony Roman Nose’s quest for freedom had for months riled the family members of his victim, 18-year-old Jolene Stuedemann. They said her rape and stabbing were so horrific that they never would feel safe if Roman Nose were released.
The high court decision also appears to close the door to any possible appeals for retroactive leniency by other Minnesota killers who, like Roman Nose, committed their crimes while teenagers.
“It’s like a weight is lifted off my chest. I can sleep better now,” said Jim Stuedemann, who had lobbied for a death penalty in Minnesota after Roman Nose killed his daughter in the family’s Woodbury home in 2000.
“He could still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but I’m not sure if they would listen to him,” the father added. “And the Legislature could change [the law]. But this ruling gives us some relief that this particular chapter is over.”
The Roman Nose decision struck at the heart of a complicated legal argument over sentences conferred nationwide on teenage killers. In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller vs. Alabama that sentencing juveniles to spend their entire lives in prison without consideration of age and age-related characteristics violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
However, the Miller vs. Alabama decision didn’t categorically restrict life without parole for juveniles, but it said judges must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest penalty possible.
Roman Nose, convicted in 2001 of first-degree murder while committing criminal sexual conduct, fell into mandatory sentencing guidelines in Minnesota that required life without parole. Three months after Miller vs. Alabama was issued, he filed a petition in Washington County District Court seeking a reduced sentence. Judge William Ekstrum resentenced Roman Nose to life in prison with possibility of release after 30 years — in 2031.
But Wednesday, the Minnesota high court reversed Ekstrum’s order, rejecting the defense argument that Miller vs. Alabama applied retroactively to the Roman Nose case.
Roman Nose and Stuedemann were fellow students at an alternative school in Cottage Grove and acquaintances, when he broke into her house and stabbed her 29 times with a screwdriver after raping her.
At the time, he was two months shy of his 18th birthday, which the Minnesota Supreme Court distinguished in maturity from the 14-year-old boy represented in Miller vs. Alabama.
“Thus, any immaturity, impetuosity, or failure to appreciate risks and consequences that was due to Roman Nose’s age was not appreciably greater than that of an average 18-year-old,” Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote in her denial of his appeal for leniency. “In light of Roman Nose’s age, the brutal nature of his crime, and the overwhelming evidence of his guilt, such a windfall would undermine the public confidence in the judicial system.”
A reduced sentence for Roman Nose came in “direct conflict” with another Minnesota Supreme Court ruling, Chambers vs. State, issued in May 2013, the high court wrote. In that ruling, involving teenager Timothy Chambers, who was sent to prison without parole for murdering a Rice County deputy, the court ruled that Miller vs. Alabama didn’t provide for retroactive sentences.
Prosecutors at the Washington County attorney’s office, who had opposed Roman Nose’s reduced sentence, applauded Wednesday’s decision.
“He’s serving life without parole, and at least at this point it’s final,” said Fred Fink, who heads the criminal division. “It’s important that when these new procedural laws come down, that old cases can’t be reopened and relitigated. Our criminal justice system is based on the notion of finality, that once a conviction and sentence are issued, they’re final.”
Wednesday’s decision likely will halt further appeals in Minnesota by teenage murderers whose crimes preceded Miller vs. Alabama, Fink said, but he acknowledged it’s possible that Roman Nose and his attorneys could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Roman Nose’s attorney, Steven Russett, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Besides Roman Nose and Chambers, six other teenage murderers in Minnesota went to prison before the Miller ruling. Collectively, they killed 10 people.
Roman Nose, now 31, is being held at Oak Park Heights prison.
“They came to the right decision,” Jim Stuedemann said Wednesday of the Minnesota court ruling, “and we’re all extremely happy.”