Aug. 12—The last of the three men found guilty of murdering a Carl Junction student in 1987 when they were teenagers will be released from prison Friday, and the victim’s 76-year-old mother sees it as a closure of sorts.
James Hardy’s release from the Tipton Correctional Center comes nearly a year after Theron (Pete) Reed Roland II left the St. Joseph-based Western Reception & Diagnostic Correctional Center. Ronald Clements received his prison release Feb. 11, 2021, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.
All three men were 17-year-old Carl Junction High School students when they beat their classmate, 19-year-old Steven Newberry, to death with baseball bats Dec. 6, 1987.
In Jasper County court, the three were found guilty of what was determined to be a planned, coordinated attack. Hardy pleaded guilty to a first-degree murder charge in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table, and Roland and Clements were found guilty of first-degree murder during trials. An appellate court later reversed Clements’ original conviction, and he was retried and again found guilty. All three were sentenced to life without parole.
“In some ways there was more closure after the last trial, when the last one went off to prison,” said Marlys Horn, Newberry’s mother, on Thursday morning. “I thought maybe it was over then.”
But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile homicide offenders was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, arguing that minors are different from adults for sentencing purposes. Adults can still be sentenced to life in prison without parole, as juveniles can still be under Missouri law if the case meets more restrictive circumstances. The Supreme Court in 2016 declared its earlier ruling retroactive, affecting those already in prison. The court cited research showing that the brains of adolescents are still developing, making them susceptible to peer pressure and more likely to commit reckless acts without considering the long-term consequences.
After the 2016 decision, Horn said, “It didn’t look like this would ever come to an end.”
Now, with all three men released from prison, she said: “I don’t really dwell on it. It doesn’t matter. What I think is not going to change anything.”
In fact, when Clements was released last year, Horn said she didn’t want him or the other two men to be harassed when they were to be released. She said she feels the same today.
“They ought to be given a fair (chance),” she told the Globe when Clements was released. “You have to be fair.”
On Thursday, she added: “I think he ought to be treated fairly. … I still think he ought to be given a fair chance.”
Karen Pojmann, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Corrections, confirmed Hardy’s scheduled release Friday from prison. She said she did not know the details of where he will go when released.
During his decades of incarceration, she said Hardy completed his HiSET, which is the high school equivalency exam.
Hardy “did academic programming; he did a lot of restorative justice programs; he was in honor dorm; he worked as a tutor. … He worked as a daily living assistant in the medical units, so he was helping people who had medical issues or disabilities,” she said. “He did a lot.”
Hardy’s father, James Hardy, who operates a business in Joplin, said his son has spoken to a family member every day over the last 35 years, “so he knows what’s going on with the family.”
“From our perspective of the family, the less a deal is made out of it, the better,” the father said. “We just want to go on with life and hopefully (James) can make a life at 52 years old.
“He was 17 when he went in,” Hardy continued. “That is a really, really a long time. He wasn’t old enough to vote when he went in. Most people if they think back to the time that they were 17 and they look to where they’re at today in life, they have changed a lot. and we have seen a lot of changes in his attitude and things over the years.”
According to Bureau of Justice statistics from 2021, people released from prison after a homicide conviction were rearrested at a considerably lower rate, 41%, than released prisoners generally, 68%.
“Theron (Roland) was released about a year ago, and I don’t know what’s exactly going on with him, but while he was incarcerated he didn’t have any kind of violations over the last 20 years, and there hasn’t been any during his parole,” Pojmann said.
“I know with Clements, because we have worked with him … he is doing really, really well,” she said. “He doesn’t want any publicity, necessarily, but he has a good job and he’s gotten promotions and he’s taking care of his mom.”
Horn said her overall goal from here on out is to ensure her firstborn son is never forgotten. That was her mission when she traveled twice to Jefferson City back in 2021 to attend the three men’s parole hearings, in which two of them were set back to back. Not once did she ever protest their prison release.
“To me, I don’t believe in fighting battles that I can’t win,” Horn said. “I went to those parole hearings not to protest their release from prison, because I felt that was futile; I went there because Steven can’t represent himself. I was there so they would remember that he was a living, breathing human being and that he’s gone now because of what they did to him. I felt like me being there at those three hearings said all that needed to be said.”
Horn admitted she’s received letters of apology from all three men, written by hand on notebook paper. Hardy’s was first, followed in time by Clements and Roland. Roland’s letter, she said, was the most remorseful of the three.
When addressing the three men during the hearings, she told stories that purposely focused on her son’s gentle nature and personality. At Hardy’s hearing, for example, she spoke about a special moment that took place between mother and son on Father’s Day in 1987, less than six months before his death.
“We were getting ready for church, and Steven came to my bedroom and asked if he could come in,” she said. “He gave me a hug and said: ‘Mom, happy Father’s Day. I just want you to know you’re the best father that I ever had.'”
Divorced since 1976, Horn had raised her son and three young daughters as a single mother; Steven was acknowledging the dual roles she’d played in his life. She would later remarry in early 1992. She also fought and overcame cancer in 1986 — at the time, she wasn’t expected to live, she said.
Keeping her son’s memory alive “I think is important,” she said. “But I also think it’s important to remember that it isn’t just me and my family that were victimized by this, but the whole community. That’s my feeling. This was a national story. It shouldn’t be forgotten.”