Suspect in Cheaha murder could only face 3 years in prison under youthful offender status

VINCENT, Ala. (WIAT) — One year ago, a Shelby County teen was murdered on Alabama’s tallest mountain.

If the man accused of killing her is found guilty, there’s a chance that he’ll serve no more than three years in prison. The victim’s father is calling it a dangerous miscarriage of justice.

Jolee Callan was 18 when she was murdered. She had just graduated from Vincent High School and had plans to attend Montevallo University in the fall.

“(She was) very, very compassionate,” said Jolee’s father, Michael Callan. “Huge heart. Many friends. Just a good kid.”

August 30, 2015, Jolee went for a hike on Mount Cheaha with her ex-boyfriend, Loren Bunner. Bunner took several pictures of the excursion and uploaded them to Instagram. Those photos were the last taken of Jolee alive.

“Two shots to the head. Threw her off a 40-foot cliff,” Callan recalled. “Clay County (deputies) showed up. (Bunner) confessed to them. They arrested him, took him to jail and somewhere in the questioning there were two more confessions.”

Bunner has been free on bond since September. His bench trial was set for Wednesday, but it’s been on hold, while a higher court looks into a decision made by the Clay County judge.

“(This was an) open and shut case, ’till this judge granted him youthful offender (status),” Callan said.

In Alabama, youthful offender status can be granted at a judge’s discretion to anyone accused of committing a crime before their 21st birthday. Bunner was 20 when Jolee was killed. Even if he is found guilty, youthful offender status only allows for a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

“What he’s done is shown other 20-year-olds how to kill somebody and get away with it,” Callan said. “We don’t have any justice.”

The Clay County judge presiding over the case and the Clay County District Attorney can’t comment on the case, because youthful offender status entitles the suspect to confidentiality in Alabama’s court system.

“I assume that everybody’s got the right intentions in the system,” said Bill Veitch, Jefferson County’s District Attorney for the Bessemer Cutoff Division.

Veitch is not connected to Bunner’s case, but can explain why youthful offender laws can be helpful to young adults who deserve a second chance.

“The purpose of youthful offender was actually to extend a kind of juvenile coverage past 18 … and hope that somebody matured enough,” Veitch said.

Veitch explained that if someone with youthful offender status is found guilty, their records remain sealed, and future background checks won’t reveal the specific conviction. Veitch said these laws work well for first-time offenders who commit property crimes, but he rarely sees it in the case of a violent offense.

“If you know somebody is violent, or has a propensity to do violence, you would want people to know that. But if you do youthful offender, they’re not going to know that,” Veitch said. “They’re not a person I can afford to take a chance with.”

Jeff Willis, Clay County’s Assistant District Attorney, confirmed that his office filed for a Writ of Mandamus with the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. This means that the higher court can overturn the Clay County judge’s decision to grant Bunner youthful offender status.

While the Court of Criminal Appeals reviews the case, the trial is on hold.

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