Justin Doyle was 15 when he was charged with murder. On April 19, 2017, Doyle was released from prison after serving nine years of his 30-year sentence after Gov. Bruce Rauner commuted Doyle’s sentence. Doyle’s case is an example of Illinois’ felony murder rule, which many criminal justice experts argue shouldn’t apply to juveniles.
Some wanted to ask Justin Doyle about his time in prison, what he ate and what it was like teaching yoga to fellow inmates. His nieces and nephews wanted piggyback rides and a wrestling partner.
Mostly, though, everyone wanted to gaze at him.
The last time many of the family and friends who crowded into Doyle’s mother’s living room had seen Doyle, he was a scrawny 15-year-old. He looked nothing like the strapping 24-year-old sitting in the corner chair Sunday, fielding questions about ramen noodles and bouncing kids on his lap.
“He’s like my piece of glass,” said his mother, Patty Smith, her eyes welling with tears. “I still can’t believe he’s home.”
Doyle wasn’t expected to come home until 2023, but his attorneys filed a lengthy clemency petition in 2015 that highlighted what they argued were fundamental flaws with the controversial Illinois law known as the felony murder rule. By law, if a person is killed during the commission of certain felonies, a suspect can be charged with murder even if that suspect did not pull the trigger or was not present at the time of the killing.
In 2008, Doyle, then 15, and two other teens had broken into a house just outside Rockford. They were unarmed and said two older acquaintances planned the burglary, assuring them no one was home. But a sleeping houseguest woke up to the teens trying to steal a stash of guns from the house. Fearing for his life, the houseguest shot Doyle’s best friend, 14-year-old Travis Castle.
Doyle was arrested and, much to his surprise, charged with Travis’ murder.
The Tribune featured Doyle’s story in a front page article last year. Critics of the felony murder law, particularly as it is applied in Illinois, argued it is exceedingly harsh and overly broad. Many legal experts and juvenile justice advocates have gone further, calling for a ban of the felony murder rule in juvenile cases.
Citing brain research on adolescents, the U.S. Supreme Court in the past decade has commanded a sweeping change in the way juveniles are treated in the criminal justice system. The justices have emphasized juveniles’ still-developing brains, their proclivity to take risks and succumb to peer pressure, as well as their inability to understand the long-term consequences of their decisions. They also pointed to adolescents’ unique rehabilitative potential.
Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has made criminal justice reform a key initiative, last week commuted Doyle’s sentence to time served. Doyle had agreed to a plea deal that dropped the murder charge before his case went to trial. He had been expected to serve half of his 30-year sentence.
A Rauner spokeswoman, who said she could not comment on individual clemency petitions, said Rauner “has made it a priority to make significant changes to the criminal justice system so it focuses on rehabilitation over punishment.”
Doyle, who has spent the past nine 9 years locked up, said he felt dizzy when he received news of his release.
“I needed to sit down,” Doyle recalled. “It was overwhelming.”
He took a few minutes to compose himself, then went back into his cell to start packing. He said his cellmate told him he would never forget the look on his face.
“In prison there ain’t much joy, but he said he could see the joy in my face,” Doyle said.
Smith, Doyle’s mother, and Edna Cappelli, his godmother, left Rockford before dawn to pick him up Wednesday.
“I was sure I was going to get a speeding ticket,” Smith said with a laugh.
For mother and son, Doyle’s release had a way of turning the ordinary into extraordinary. As they headed north on Highway 39, making the three-hour trip from the Illinois River Correctional Center to Rockford that Smith had made countless times before, Doyle marveled at his surroundings.
“It’s kind of beautiful,” he said. “There are all these colors I haven’t seen in a while. Everything is kind of bright.”
Once they made it home, it was Smith’s turn to be in awe. She stood in her living room and stared at her youngest son.
“I’m looking at him and thinking, ‘Is this real?’ ” she said just hours after his release.
Smith had made a habit of calling the prisoner review board regularly to check on the status of Doyle’s clemency petition.
“It almost felt like it was never going to happen,” she said.
Smith spends her days delivering packages for work. When Doyle’s attorney, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law professor Steven Drizin, called her a week ago, she asked him if she should pull over. When he said she should, Smith thought Doyle’s clemency petition had been denied.
“Then he said, ‘Your son is coming home,’ ” Smith recalled. “I couldn’t catch my breath. Thank God he told me to pull over because I just started bawling.”
Tears also flowed at Sunday’s gathering, where nearly 50 family and friends met for Doyle’s homecoming and a belated Easter celebration. The sun shone brightly as the kids dyed hard-boiled eggs in the backyard and family members sat on lawn chairs trading memories.
Doyle wouldn’t venture beyond the second step of the postage stamp-like front porch, though. He lifted his jeans to display his electronic monitoring bracelet. Until he knows for sure the backyard won’t set it off, Doyle said he didn’t want to risk it.
Not that his family seemed to mind. They barreled through the front door with their arms extended, engulfing Doyle in hug after hug. His grandmothers on both sides of the family kissed him on the cheek. Everyone, it seemed, had advice for him — find a job as soon as possible, don’t rush into a relationship, watch the sun rise.
When it was time for lunch, Nathan Whitmire came inside with a plate of ham, sweet potatoes and green beans that he gave to Doyle. Whitmire was the third teen who had entered the house that fateful night in 2008. He received a shorter sentence on a separate charge and was released from prison in 2013.
“It’s been kind of tough since I’ve been out, but things are finally coming together,” said Whitmire, who is engaged and expecting a child. “With me and Justin, we picked up where we left off.”
Travis’ sister, Chelsea Castle, and his aunt, Linda Barker, also stopped by to see Doyle.
“He went in a boy and came out a man,” Barker said.
As she looked at Doyle, she said she couldn’t help but wonder what her nephew would have looked like if he had survived.
“We miss him,” Barker said. “But I’m glad Justin is getting a second chance. He deserves it.”
Drizin, the Northwestern attorney who worked on Doyle’s case with two law students, called Doyle’s clemency “the equivalent of a legal miracle,” one that he wants to follow up with a change in the law as it is applied to juveniles.
“This is a wonderful victory, but if it stops here, then it is a pyrrhic victory,” Drizin said. “Clemency, while a critical part of the criminal justice system, is an inefficient way to reform the law. It’s one case at a time, and it’s an extraordinarily rare remedy.”
Retired Judge George Timberlake, chairman of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, agrees. He penned an online post citing the Tribune’s story on Doyle last year, then wrote a letter for Doyle’s clemency file.
“In cases like Justin’s, a juvenile can be charged with murder even though he never intended to kill anyone, took no steps to threaten or harm the victim, and the victim was killed by a third party unconnected to any of the defendants,” wrote Timberlake, who also is the chairman of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice.
That Doyle’s sentence was commuted gives Timberlake hope.
“It means we have a legal system that can work,” he said recently. “When science tells us something we didn’t know before, it’s extraordinarily important for there to be backstop.”