A septuagenarian set to live out his days behind bars after being sentenced as a teen to life in prison has walked free, thanks to a series of Supreme Court decisions that have given him another chance on the outside.
Sheldry Topp’s more than 56 years in prison earned him the unwanted moniker of oldest “juvenile lifer” in Michigan before he left a 74-year-old free man Thursday.
Topp was 17 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 1962 murder of Charles Davis. The teen had snuck out of a mental institution in Pontiac Michigan and waited until it was dark to break into the attorney’s home, which he said he thought looked like “anybody with money lived” in.
He grabbed a kitchen knife and headed to a bedroom to rummage through a dresser for cash, but Davis, 50, discovered Topp.
The pair fought and Topp stabbed Davis four times before cutting the phone line and stealing the man’s car to flee to Chicago, court documents viewed by CNN said.
Topp was caught by the FBI two weeks after the murder, which prosecutors said Tuesday was not the mark of an immature teen, but an “irreparably corrupt” killer, court documents said.
But Medical experts who testified in Topp’s sentencing years earlier said he was a child under duress and was not beyond the ability to be rehabilitated.
Topp’s sister testified as well and spoke of the abuse her brother suffered at the hands of their father.
When Topp was a child, his father routinely beat him with an extension cord and baseball bat, she said. Authorities said he was put in a juvenile home after begging his mother to not make him go home, and when he was 13, he was involuntarily committed to a state hospital. There, he received electroshock treatment and hydrotherapy, which involves tightly wrapping a person in wet sheets, to treat an unspecified mental illness.
In prison, Topps appeared to thrive. He completed rehabilitation programs and academic courses, and worked several jobs within the prison, according to court records.
"It was something I had to do if I ever wanted to get out of jail,” Topp said, according to CNN. “I had to do that. But then I started learning a lot of things that made me think about why I did what I did and understand why I shouldn't do them.”
For most of the 56 years he spent behind bars, he was held at a minimum security facility near Lake Michigan. Topp never appealed his conviction, but he was denied a commuted sentence in 1987 and 2008.
Then in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Doing so was an example of “cruel and unusual punishment,” even if the minor was convicted of murder.
"Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.
Around the time of the ruling, national advocacy group The Sentencing Project released a study that found 47 percent of juveniles serving a life without parole sentence were physically abused and that 77 percent of girls serving that sentence reported being sexually abused.
In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled the law should be applied retroactively, meaning prisoners who received such a sentence before the 2012 decision would have a chance to see it reconsidered.
Topp on Tuesday appeared before a judge for the reconsideration of his sentence. Prosecutors reportedly sought to resentence Topp to life without parole, but Judge James Alexander instead resentenced him to 40 to 60 years in prison.
He had already served 56 years and accrued more than 10 years’ worth of good behavior credits, Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz told CNN.
Topp plans to stay with relatives, whom he said have remained supportive since he was originally convicted and sentenced. On Thursday, Topp left prison, and using the walker he has relied on since he suffered a stroke in 2016, he headed for a steak dinner with his brother.
“I'm really feeling good about it,” Topp told CNN Thursday. “I don't know how I'll feel tomorrow, but I don't think I'll feel less good.”