Teen killer finally gets chance for parole - in 2047 - for Harris County deputy’s shooting
Alan Nickerson was still in high school when he and a group of friends shot to death an off-duty deputy constable during a botched robbery.
It was a capital crime but, at 17, Nickerson wasn’t eligible for the death penalty. Instead, he was automatically given a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for the murder of Carltrell Odom.
That was in 2008. In the intervening years, public opinion has shifted and the laws have changed. Life without parole is no longer a legal sentence for minors in Texas.
When a U.S. Supreme Court decision sparked a review of cases like Nickerson’s, Harris County prosecutors again decided to ask for a sentence of life without parole, a move that surprised Nickerson’s attorneys and set off months of legal back-and-forth.
But on Monday, following a meeting with the victim’s family, a strongly worded letter from a coalition of criminal justice advocates and questions from the Houston Chronicle, prosecutors switched course and offered a plea to life with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
“We’re grateful that the district attorney’s office has come to this conclusion,” said Mandy Miller, the defense attorney representing Nickerson. “I hope that this now means that they’re taking a stance that they won’t be seeking life without parole on any of these cases when they come back for resentencing.”
There are only about two dozen cases like Nickerson’s statewide, and District Attorney Kim Ogg didn’t immediately address how she plans to handle those out of Harris County. But she framed the change of heart as a relief to the victim’s family.
“Although Carltrell’s senseless murder is forever a daily presence in their lives, Carltrell’s family wants the legal wrangling and appeals to end,” Ogg said Monday. “The certainty that Nickerson must serve at least 40 years before being considered for parole, while it restores nothing to them, gives a measure of peace.”
Only in rare cases
For decades, Texas killers convicted of capital murder had two sentences available to them under law: life with parole or the death penalty. But in 2005, the state Legislature replaced life with parole with a harsher alternative: life without the possibility of parole.
It was a change that death penalty supporters had long resisted, fearing it would make juries less apt to agree to death if they knew that a life sentence truly meant a killer would never be able to get out of prison.
But convicted capital murderers under 18 weren’t eligible for death — thanks to an earlier Supreme Court decision — so instead they got mandatory life without parole.
Then in 2012, a groundbreaking Supreme Court case out of Alabama banned mandatory life without parole for minors. Instead, the high court said sentencing for young offenders should be considered on a case-by-case basis, weighing factors such as culpability and the possibility of rehabilitation.
“The U.S. Supreme Court was clear that the sentence should only be for the rare juvenile that represents permanent incorrigibility and the inability to be rehabilitated,” said Marsha Levick, chief legal officer at the Juvenile Law Center in Pennsylvania.
Teens sentenced in the six years between the creation of life without parole and the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision were in a sort of legal limbo, sentenced under a statute deemed no longer constitutional.
In 2013, the Texas Legislature passed a law banning life without parole as a sentence for killers under 18. That law wasn’t retroactive, so it didn’t affect cases like Nickerson’s.
But three years later, another Supreme Court case made the 2012 ruling retroactive, and Nickerson’s case ended up back in the legal system.
An unexpected move
The 2007 slaying that started it all was over money for a pair of sneakers. Nickerson and three other teens approached the off-duty constable and another man outside the Concord Apartments, demanding their valuables.
Odom, who was off duty and not in uniform, ran away across the parking lot, but Nickerson followed him and opened fire, killing the 20-year-old six months before he was scheduled to graduate from college.
Afterward, Miller said, Nickerson showed remorse and helped police catch his co-conspirators.
But still, according to First Assistant District Attorney Tom Berg, it was the “heinousness” of the crime that prompted prosecutors to consider life without parole as the sentence a second time around.
In July, the case went before the district attorney’s capital review committee, which evaluates every capital murder case and votes on an appropriate sentence. Prosecutors wouldn’t say how each member voted, but collectively they decided to move ahead in pursuing life without parole.
To Miller, it was an unexpected move, especially from a district attorney who campaigned as a reform candidate.
“Going forward with life without parole is clearly against the legislative intent,” she said, pointing to the 2013 law.
“This is not the worst of the worst,” she said. “This is a robbery gone wrong.”
The case was headed for a jury trial, though prosecutors had filed a motion asking for the judge to handle sentencing instead.
Miller, meanwhile, filed a motion asking the court to apply the 2013 law retroactively, thus banning life without parole for her client.
And last week the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association and a coalition of advocacy groups sent Ogg’s office a letter asking them to reconsider, and to think about whether life without parole is “ever an appropriate sentence for a juvenile since the Texas Legislature has found it is not.”
Prosecutors met Monday morning with the family, Berg said. When the Chronicle called for comment just before noon, officials said they were still pursuing life without parole.
Then, early Monday afternoon, prosecutors emailed the defense attorney with the offer of a lesser sentence, life with the possibility of parole after 40 years — in 2047.
“What we’re really talking about here is the chance at mercy,” said defense attorney Patrick McCann, who also handled the case. “That’s all we’re talking about — the chance.”