Man Sentenced to Life for Murder at 17-Years-Old is Free at 74

Sheldry Topp is the oldest "juvenile lifer" freed by the state of Michigan.

(Getty Images)
Getty Images

Sheldry Topp was just 17-years-old when he killed a man and received an automatic sentence of life without parole in a Michigan county court.

But after serving more than 56 years behind bars for fatally stabbing a man in 1962, the 74-year-old left prison a free man on Thursday and headed for a steak dinner with his brother, CNN reported.

Topp was the oldest “juvenile lifer” in Michigan before two U.S. Supreme Court decisions changed his life. The court decided in 2012 that sentencing a minor to an automatic sentence of life in prison without a chance at parole was unconstitutional and represented “cruel and unusual punishment,” even if the juvenile was convicted of murder. And in 2016, the Supreme Court ruled the law should be applied retroactively, a decision that gave Topp another chance.

“I’m really feeling good about it,”Topp said. “I don’t know how I’ll feel tomorrow, but I don’t think I’ll feel less good.”

Topp, who uses a walker after having a stroke in 2016, plans to stay with family, whom he says has supported him throughout his prison term.

According to court documents, Topp had been in and out of mental institutions since age 12 where he received electroshock treatment and hydrotherapy. Topp was abused by his father, including frequent beatings with an extension cord. Topp’s sister even testified she witnessed their father beating him with a baseball bat and records show he was put in a juvenile home after begging his mother not to make him return to his own home.

Medical experts testified in Topp’s resentencing that he was a child under duress and is not beyond the ability to be rehabilitated. While in prison, Topp completed rehabilitation programs, took academic courses and worked various jobs.

“It was something I had to do if I ever wanted to get out of jail,” he said. “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.”

The Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group, found that 47% of juveniles serving a life without parole sentence have been physically abused.

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