TAMPA — David Timothy Sheren spends his days studying world religions, attending self-improvement courses and caring for disabled inmates in the clinic at Columbia Correctional Institute, his attorneys say.
Those who work with him insist the 41-year-old is truly "not the same person" he was at 16, when he and his 15-year-old girlfriend were sentenced to life in prison for brutally killing a disabled Chamberlain High School senior who had a crush on him.
With recent court rulings and good behavior on his side, Sheren will be set free in less than two years, after serving just 24 years in state prison for his role in the 1992 murder of Linda Bonck, an 18-year-old with cerebral palsy.
The U.S. and Florida Supreme Courts have deemed it unconstitutional to give juveniles life sentences without the possibility of parole.
"Redemption is possible," said Sheren’s attorney, Byron P Hileman Jr., chief of the homicide division for the Office of Regional Conflict Counsel’s second district.
"It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does happen we need to take it into consideration and not throw people away for their whole lives."
The teenage couple, neither of whom ever gave a clear motive for brutally beating and stabbing Bonck to death, are among juvenile offenders in central Florida who could see their life sentences cut short, in part because of psychiatric studies on teen brain development.
Sheren was resentenced Thursday to 65 years — the same deal his then-girlfriend Georgia Miller received earlier this month for her role in the murder.
But with gain time she accumulated under rules that were in place when she was sentenced at 15 years old in 1992, plus credit for time served, Miller will likely be released in March 2023. Once released, she must spend 15 years on probation.
Sheren has already been accepted into the housing facilities at Abe Brown Ministries, a faith-based rehabilitation program where he’ll receive counseling and work training.
"This is really a success story of a young man who grew up in prison yet still made something of himself and transformed himself into a different person than he was when he was a youngster under the influence of other people," Hileman said.
While in prison, Sheren maintained an unusually clean disciplinary record, attended multiple adult education and self-improvement courses and obtained his GED, Hileman said. Sheren also worked as a medical aid for handicapped prisoners. In recommendation letters to Judge Thomas Barber, prison wardens and other correctional staff wrote of the trust they placed in Sheren to regularly work around knives, scalpels and other medical equipment while incarcerated.
In his resentencing hearing, Barber read aloud the three-page letter Sheren sent him, taking responsibility and expressing remorse for the crime.
"The judge even told other inmates in the courtroom to pay attention and learn from the experiences of someone who grew up in the prison system and became a very intelligent and sincere individual," Hileman said.
But the court never did learn who was primarily responsible for Linda Bonck’s death on Dec. 8, 1992.
In court, Sheren and Miller pointed fingers at the other when asked who was truly responsible for Bonck’s death. Through their conflicting testimonies, a jury eventually learned that the teenage couple had only known Bonck for a few days before the girl wandered into their kitchen, hoping Sheren would become her boyfriend.
Bonck weighed only 90 pounds and suffered from disabilities that prevented her from speaking clearly or walking without leg braces. Still, the two teens beat the disabled woman until she was bloody, then cornered her in a bedroom after she tried to escape and stabbed her to death.
In 1995, Florida’s Supreme Court did away with the state’s parole program, which allowed prisoners with a life sentence to become eligible for parole after 25 years. That meant that, for most inmates, there was no escaping a life sentence. But more than two decades later, in 2016, the state’s Supreme Court decided it was unconstitutional to hand down life sentences to juvenile offenders as if they were adults.
The state Supreme Court went so far as to say that even those juveniles sentenced before 1995 who are eligible for parole must now be resentenced.
The decision drew on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller vs. Alabama, which ruled that automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Times reporter Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.