Standing on the Missouri Capitol steps moments after being released from prison, Bobby Bostic said the first place he planned to visit was his mother’s grave in St. Louis — a city he’d last freely walked in 1995.

“I’m a free man all because of you all who supported me,” Bostic, 43, said Wednesday morning while surrounded by friends and family donning matching sweatshirts that read “Bobby Bostic is Free.”

“While I cannot change what happened so many years ago,” he said, “I will mentor and teach young people to take a different path than I did when I was a young child myself.”

Bostic was imprisoned in 1995 for a crime he committed when he was 16, when he was an accomplice in two armed robberies in St. Louis. 

Now-retired St. Louis judge Evelyn Baker sentenced Bostic to 241 years, with the first chance at parole being when Bostic turned 112.

Baker sentenced him to die in prison without giving him an official life sentence. 

“Your mandatory date to go in front of the parole board will be the year 2201,” Baker told Bostic at his sentencing date in 1997. “Nobody in this room is going to be alive in the year 2201.”

By sentencing him in this way, Bostic wasn’t protected under a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandated parole hearings for juveniles who’ve been sentenced to life without parole. 

Bostic’s case fell into a legal loophole that existed in Missouri and only a few other states. Missouri courts had held that this mandate didn’t apply to juveniles like Bostic, who received a sentence for multiple offenses that added up to life in prison.

All of Bostic’s legal remedies were exhausted by 2018, when his petitions to both the Missouri Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court were denied without comment.

But then in 2021, Republican Rep. Nick Schroer of O’Fallon successfully pushed legislation to allow juveniles who have been sentenced to 15 years or more to be eligible for parole after serving 15 years in prison. 

Bostic is one of about 100 people who got a new chance at parole after the law passed. 

Tony Rothert, director of integrated advocacy for the ACLU of Missouri, said Bostic’s experience is part of a broader trend in Missouri of imposing harsh discipline on young children with few possibilities for redemption.

“We might ask: Has the system worked now? Bobby is free,” Rothert said at the press conference Wednesday. “But it hasn’t.”

Baker, who came to regret how she handled the case in 1995, became one of Bostic’s biggest allies, appearing as his advocate in front of the parole board last year.

“Bobby should’ve had a chance,” Baker said Wednesday, explaining that only after she sentenced him did she learn that teenagers’ brains aren’t fully developed.

“I had no awareness at that time that Bobby, by being certified to be tried as an adult, did not become an adult,” Baker said. “He was still a 16-year-old boy.” 

Baker added: “I’ve never seen Bobby free. I feel like I could float.”

‘One day at a time’

On Dec. 12, 1995, Bostic and then 18-year-old Donald Hutson robbed a group of six people at gunpoint who were delivering Christmas gifts to a needy family in St. Louis, according to the ACLU’s 2017 petition to the U.S. Supreme Court

During the robbery, two people were shot at. One received a tetanus shot because the gunshot grazed his skin. The other testified that he was not injured at all.

After the robbery, Bostic and Hutson forced a woman into her car and drove off. They robbed her and then, at Bostic’s insistence, let her go, the petition states. 

Then, Bostic and Hutson threw their guns in the river and used the money to buy marijuana. Bostic was pulled over by the police and ultimately charged with 18 felonies.

Although no one was seriously injured in the robberies, Baker said Bostic “didn’t express any remorse,” remembering the sentencing hearing. 

Baker was among 26 former judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials who asked the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 to intervene in his case.

Baker signed the amici curiae brief asking that the Supreme Court apply its 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida to Bostic’s case.

In that ruling, the court ruled it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes. 

In 2020, Baker visited Bostic in prison. 

She heard how he grew up in extreme poverty and was introduced to alcohol and drugs at a very young age. Gun violence was a daily reality.

He had few opportunities to thrive as a child, Baker said, and it’s what led him to the crime that landed him in prison.

“He stands in front of you today a kind, loving and caring man,” Baker said Wednesday. “I think this should have happened 10 years ago or more. But I’m glad it happened. Bobby will make this world a much better place.”

Bostic said he plans on taking things “one day at a time,” doing things he never had the chance to do — like learn to drive, use the internet and talk on a cell phone for the first time. 

On Wednesday, he returned home to St. Louis.

“It’s perfect because I know St. Louis,” he said, “But I’ve got to relearn it.”

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.