IONIA— The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that a young man who murdered an elderly Hubbardston woman should be resentenced on the conviction of first-degree murder.
Justin Stephens, 24, was convicted by a jury trial in July 2011 of killing Bernita “Billie” Cunningham, 80, in her Hubbardston home in December 2006. Stephens was 17 years old at the time of the murder.
Stephens was sentenced to mandatory life in prison for first-degree murder, plus up to 15 years in prison for second-degree home invasion.
The Court of Appeals released an opinion on Tuesday, upholding Stephens’ convictions, but ruling that Stephens should be resentenced due to the recent ruling of Miller vs. Alabama, a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
According to court documents, Stephens came from Texas to live with a family, who lived across the street from Cunningham in Hubbardston. Stephens had previously met the family in Texas. Stephens began dating a woman who also lived with the family.
In December 2006, Stephens’ aunt sent him a bus ticket so he could return to Texas. He brought a knife with him, which his aunt cleaned with hydrogen peroxide. He also brought a bloody sweatshirt with him, which his aunt washed approximately 12 times while he was living with her.
Stephens stayed with his aunt from five to seven weeks, during which time he had a serious argument with her and locked her in a bathroom and threatened to hurt her “like an old lady.” Another argument took place in a car and Stephens again threatened to hurt her “like an old lady.”
Michigan State Police Det. Sgt. Michael Morey traveled to Texas in July 2009 to talk to Stephens. At first, Stephens agreed to talk to Morey, but about 15 minutes into the interview Stephens ended the conversation.
In the spring of 2010, Morey contacted Texas Ranger James Holland to assist in the investigation. Holland interviewed Stephens in May 2010. Stephens was cooperative and initially denied killing Cunningham. Holland probed Stephens’ alibi for several hours. Holland eventually told Stephens he thought Stephens had killed Cunningham based on inconsistencies in his alibi.
Stephens broke down crying and indicated that “he had done it.” He agreed to provide Holland with a report of exactly what happened, but first he insisted on calling his sister.
Stephens told his sister on the phone that he “killed the old lady … because she knew who I was and I didn’t want to go to jail.” Stephens’ sister told him not to talk to the police. Stephens’ demeanor then changed and he refused to make a full confession.
Holland interviewed Stephens again in July 2010. During the interview, Holland wrote the word “others” on a pice of paper, shoved it toward Stephens and said, “You’re not gonna get it until you understand that it’s not about you. It’s about others. It’s about who you affected, the family, the victim, everyone who knew her.”
Stephens broke down crying again and eventually confessed. He said he was despondent because he thought his girlfriend was pregnant in the winter of 2006. He wanted to go back to Texas. He broke into Cunningham’s house, found five $20 bills in her purse and put them in his pocket.
Suddenly, Cunningham appeared and asked Stephens what he was doing. Stephens said he was shocked and didn’t know what to do. He started to walk past her to leave the house, but Cunningham grabbed him by his shirt sleeve, walked him into the dining room and sat him down on a chair.
Stephens said Cunningham asked him what he was doing and why, but he didn’t say anything. Cunningham said she was going to call the police. Stephens said he couldn’t have that happen. He stood up and started walking out again, but Cunningham grabbed him again.
Stephens said he grabbed something from a nearby shelf and hit her in the head with it. Cunningham began stumbling toward the door. Stephens said he realized this couldn’t happen. He tackled her. He said he thought he may have stabbed her.
Stephens said the next thing he knew, he was outside, covered in blood behind Cunningham’s house.
In a later recorded confession, Stephens said he remembered going toward the door, but he didn’t remember what he did. His sister later testified that Stephens told her he didn’t remember what he did to Cunningham, but he guessed he killed her. His sister said Stephens told her he killed Cunningham because she knew who he was and she could identify him.
Cunningham died from four stab wounds along her jaw extending to her neck. According to trial testimony, Stephens always carried a pocketknife with him.
Stephens appealed his sentence, arguing that Holland improperly commented on Stephens’ credibility and guilt while testifying at trial. Stephens also argued that his defense attorney was ineffective because he failed to object to Holland’s improper comments.
During trial, Holland described Stephens’ expression of emotion during their interviews as “cunning” and “tactical.” Holland also called Stephens’ claim that he could not remember killing Cunningham a “convenient” blackout. Holland also described the circumstantial case against Stephens as “beautiful.”
According to Stephens, Holland’s comments underminded Stephens’ credibility and didn’t give the jury a chance to believe that Stephens “blacked out” before he killed Cunningham, thus acting impulsively and without intent to murder.
The Court of Appeals ruled that Holland’s statements impermissibly expressed Holland’s opinion regarding Stephens’ guilt; however, the court did not believe Holland’s statements influenced the life sentence handed down by the judge.
The Court of Appeals did rule that Stephens should be resentenced due to the ruling of Miller vs. Alabama.
Ionia County Prosecutor Ron Schafer said the Court of Appeals was obligated to make its remand ruling due to Miller vs. Alabama. However, Schafer has sympathy for Cunningham’s family.
“I’ve got to bring back the entire family to go through all this again,” Schafer said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of thought for the family of the victim in situations like these. It’s horribly unfair to the victims to have to go through this.”