Inmate seeks relief before he dies; he has served nearly 38 years for robberies as juvenile

Two weeks before his 18th birthday, Terrance Proctor threw himself on the mercy of the court.

Pleading guilty to a string of Little Rock armed robberies, most of them conducted over a 2½-week span, the Little Rock teen was sentenced to life in prison with no parole with another 200 years stacked on top of that.

It was the fourth time Proctor had appeared in Pulaski County Circuit Court.

The only witness his lawyer called was Proctor's mother, but her testimony about her son's psychiatric struggles, drug addiction and difficulties with an abusive father appeared to carry no weight with the judge.

"Mr. Proctor, it is my intention that when you get out of the penitentiary you [will] be an old man," the judge told him. "My intention is to keep you there for most of the rest of your life."

The year was 1983. Nearly 38 years later, Proctor is 55 years old and still behind bars, held in Arkansas' Varner Supermax unit.

But things have changed.

A recent ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza represents Proctor's best chance to get out of prison before he dies there or turns 117 years old when he will finally qualify for parole.

Plea deals generally can't be appealed and Proctor, a 10th grade dropout, tried the only route left open to him. Acting as his own lawyer, with assistance from another inmate, Proctor argued that his sentence should be set aside on the grounds that his lawyer had been incompetent and had never told him prosecutors had offered him a 30-year sentence to plead guilty.

Proctor said his lawyer pushed him to plead guilty to all nine criminal cases, 10 counts of aggravated robbery and one count of robbery, and ignored him when he said he had an alibi, with witnesses, for at least some of the holdups.

Later, Proctor's supporters would wonder how familiar that lawyer could have been with the evidence against Proctor, given that eight of the nine cases had been filed only two days earlier.

The judge rejected Proctor's claims, which had come in the form of what is known as "Rule 37 petition," a seldom-successful appeal procedure based on the Arkansas Rules of Criminal Procedure that guarantee a defendant's constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.

Four years after Proctor's guilty plea, the abilities of his lawyer, Ron Heller, would be called into question when Heller was caught pilfering a client's estate of at least $11,000 -- money he'd stolen over nearly a year -- and pleaded guilty to theft in exchange for two years on probation.

Heller, who died in 2006, also acknowledged a longtime alcohol problem and had already surrendered his law license by then, after being sanctioned by regulators for his late handling of some appeals.

The only substantive examination of Heller's performance appears to have come in 1989, six years after Proctor was sentenced, when death-row inmate Thomas Winford Simmons complained that Heller's alcoholism had substantially damaged the attorney's work on Simmons' appeal.

The federal judge who reviewed the case wrote that Heller performed "capably on behalf of Simmons just as he had performed ably and successfully on behalf of other death-row inmates." Simmons killed himself in prison in 1991 while awaiting execution after his further appeals were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Proctor, who had been recommended for executive clemency in 2008, would not get another meaningful opportunity to challenge his sentence until 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no-parole life sentences are unconstitutional, "cruel and unusual" punishments for juvenile offenders who have not killed anyone.

Acting as his own lawyer, Proctor used the ruling to persuade a judge to vacate his life sentence in May 2014 but succeeded only in having it replaced with a 240-year term, based on Arkansas Supreme Court precedent, that would not make him eligible for parole until February 2082 when he will be 117.

Still representing himself, Proctor's subsequent effort to argue that a 240-year prison term amounted to a constitutionally illegal life sentence, particularly since he had not hurt or killed anyone, was rebuffed by the state Supreme Court last April. In a majority holding, the justices found that Proctor had not presented any arguments showing that he was entitled to any more relief from the courts than he had already received.

It was during that most recent effort before the high court that Little Rock attorney Michael Kaiser took up Proctor's cause at the suggestion of another Little Rock lawyer, Cara Boyd Connors, who had worked with Proctor.

Kaiser, with the firm Lassiter & Cassinelli, said he already knew of Proctor because he had followed Proctor's appeal efforts while in law school and studying juvenile-justice efforts and sentencing reform.

"I've always been a fan of Terrance's work ever since I was in law school", Kaiser said. "The fact that on his own, pro se, he had gotten that [life] sentence reduced, it's tough enough for a lawyer to do that, but it's so much more impressive when it's someone convicted before graduating high school and having to do it from [a prison law] library."

Kaiser, 31, calls Proctor, who has obtained his high-school diploma during his incarceration, an "exceptionally intelligent" self-taught lawyer, a voracious reader and writer who has published a memoir on Amazon, "Talez From the Living Dead."

Four months after Proctor lost at the state Supreme Court, he and Kaiser turned toward challenging the way parole laws for inmates who committed crimes before turning 18 were being applied to him.

The strategy, which had actually been suggested by Supreme Court Justice Courtney Hudson during Proctor's most recent foray to the high court, was to argue that under those laws, as enacted by the General Assembly in 2017, prison authorities were wrongly withholding parole from Proctor.

Kaiser argued that the 2017 law, the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act, made Proctor immediately eligible for early release, given that it imposed a 20-year minimum for defendants like Proctor whose crimes had been committed before he turned 18. Proctor has served almost twice that time.

Lawyers for the state opposed his case, arguing that the fair-sentencing law only applies in homicide cases involving a juvenile, not for teenage defendants whose crimes did not involve someone being killed.

"They were saying that Terrance should have killed someone if he wanted the benefit of this statute," Kaiser said, saying there are at least three other inmates in the same situation as Proctor.

Piazza, the judge, rejected the state's arguments and sided with Kaiser and Proctor, stating that if the law didn't work the way they maintained that it should, the law wouldn't make any sense.

He found that Proctor should have been eligible for parole in February 2003, and ordered prison officials to put him up for consideration for early release by next February.

However, the attorney general, acting on behalf of prison officials, began the appeal process on Dec 17 and asked the judge to stay the ruling until the appeal has been concluded.