Hugh McQuaid Photo
John Cluny (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

A Norwich man whose wife and son were murdered 20 years ago by a 15-year-old told the Sentencing Commission on Thursday that the prison sentences of some juvenile criminals should not be reconsidered.

In 1993, John Cluny came home from work and discovered the bodies of his wife, Elaine, and 14-year-old son, David. They had been murdered by a neighborhood kid, Michael Bernier, who was 15 at the time. Bernier was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Over the years, Cluny has voiced opposition in Hartford to legislation which would reduce the prison sentences of prison inmates. He testified Thursday at public hearing on a proposal to give inmates a chance to make their case for a shorter sentence before a parole board if they have been serving lengthy prison terms for crimes they committed as teenagers.

“Now you want to put this kid on the street so he can have a life?” Cluny said, sitting behind framed photos of his wife and son. “. . . So he’s going to come out and have a life and get a job while my son rots in the grave? You call that justice?”

The commission has called for taking another look at the sentences juvenile offenders. The move comes in response to several U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In the less than a decade, the high court has three times upheld a position that juvenile criminals are less culpable and therefore less deserving of severe punishment than are their adult counterparts.

This year the group recommended changing the state’s sentencing and parole policies for juvenile offenders. But the bill did not clear the legislature this session. Despite being approved overwhelmingly by the House, it was never called in the Senate.

Some members of the Sentencing Commission believe that inaction could have consequences. The Supreme Court’s decisions open the door for litigation against the state, which could see Connecticut’s sentencing policies altered by the courts.

“The Sentencing Commission has been of the opinion that in Connecticut, a legislative response would be preferable to case-by-case decisions by different courts as to what these cases require,”  said David M. Borden, a retired state Supreme Court Justice who serves as one of the commission’s chairmen.

The group called Thursday’s public hearing to take public input as they begin to consider what action they should ask the legislature to take on the issue next year.

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, who serves on the commission, worked as the state’s attorney prosecuting the murder of Cluny’s family. He told Cluny that the commission was trying to find a way to assess which juvenile offenders deserve to have their sentences reconsidered.

“You do understand there are some cases that it is possible that the person ought to be let out early?” Kane asked Cluny.

Cluny said he did not necessarily disagree but said the commission needs to draw a line.

“You’ve got to draw a distinction between my case and other cases. Some cases do not warrant you being that considerate of them,” he said.

Cluny said he believes some offenders are calculated murderers and can not be rehabilitated. He rejected the idea that juvenile offenders have not matured enough to understand the consequences of their actions.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Roberto Vergara (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

The commission also heard emotional appeals from the parents and family members of inmates who committed crimes as minors and an account of rehabilitation from one former inmate who has since turned his life around.

Roberto Vergara said he went to prison in 1991 on charges associated with an attempted home invasion robbery. At 16 years old he was sentenced to 33 years in prison and was released after serving 17 years. Vergara said he has been working steadily since being released from prison. He currently has a job working for the Transportation Department. 

Board of Pardons and Parole Chair Erika Tindall said Vergara was a testament to the Supreme Court rulings that have prompted the proposals.

Vergara said he believes there are many people in prison capable of turning their lives around and being productive members of society.

“Just because they committed a crime when they was young, doesn’t mean their whole lives got to be thrown away,” he said.

Garvin Ambrose, the state’s Victim Advocate, said he opposes the legislation recommended by the Sentencing Commission. During the hearing, he expressed a desire to rework the proposal the group advocated this year.

Ambrose asked Vergara whether the state should consider parole hearings for inmates based on the severity of their crimes. Vergara said it depends on what the state was seeking to accomplish with its correction system.

“If you’re looking at it as a punishment, you could give a person 100 years and it won’t make a difference. But if you’re looking at it like rehabilitation, it’s a whole different story,” he said. “If you want to take a kid and throw them in jail and throw away the key — it’s not going to help nobody. It’s definitely not going to help that kid.”