High Court to Weigh Life Sentences for Juvenile Murderers

By Mark Walsh — November 07, 2011 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles as young as 14 to life without parole in homicide cases.

The justices granted review of appeals in two cases involving 14-year-olds, one in Alabama and one in Arkansas, who are serving such sentences. Both are represented by the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Ala., group that argues such sentences are “cruel and unsual punishments” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court, in a 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, prohibited the death penalty for offenders who committed their crimes before age 18. In a 2010 ruling known as Graham v. Florida, the court held that a sentence of life in prison without parole for a juvenile offender in a non-homicide case was unconstitutional.

The recent cases on juvenile sentencing have been watched closely by many educators and child-development experts because they have turned to some degree on advances in knowledge about adolescent brain development.

“Developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court majority last year in Graham. “Juveniles are more capable of change than are adults, and their actions are less likely to be evidence of irretrievably depraved character than are the actions of adults.”

“Under this court’s reasoning in [Roper] and Graham, the identical analysis which led to the results in those case logically compels the conclusion that consigning a 14-year-old child to die in prison through a life-without-parole sentence categorically violates the Eighth and 14th Amendments,” said Bryan A. Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in one of the briefs.

Stevenson stressed similar themes in urging the high court to take up the issue of life-without-parole sentences in the juvenile homicide cases, Miller v. Alabama (No. 10-9646) and Jackson v. Hobbs (No. 10-9647).

“Relative to the cognition of adults and even older adolescents, young teenage judgment is handicapped in nearly every conceivable way,” Stevenson said. “Young adolescents lack life experience and background knowledge to inform their choices; they struggle to generate options and to imagine consequences; and, perhaps for good reason, they lack the necessary self-confidence to make reasoned judgments and stick by them.”

The Alabama case involves Evan Miller, who was 14 in 2003 when he was convicted with another adolescent of starting a fire that killed a neighbor with whom he had an altercation. Miller was convicted as an adult of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole.The other boy received a lesser sentence in exchange for testifying against Miller.

The Arkansas case involves Kuntrell Jackson, who was 14 in 1999 when he participated with two older boys in the robbery of a video store. Although it was one of the other boys who shot and killed a store clerk with a shotgun, Jackson was convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery, and the trial judge was legally barred from considering his level of involvement, so Jackson received a life-without-parole sentence.

The appeal on Jackson’s behalf asks the high court to consider whether a state’s mandatory sentencing policy for accomplices to murder violates the Eighth Amendment when it is imposed on a 14-year-old.

Both Alabama and Arkansas urged the court not to take up the cases.

Alabama said in a brief that last year’s Graham ruling was “of sufficiently recent vintage” that no consensus has developed in the states about the imposition of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders.

Stevenson said in his briefs that Miller and Jackson are two of 73 juveniles who are serving such sentences nationwide, and 18 states have imposed such sentences on children 14 or younger.

“Internationally, the United States is the only country in the world where death in prison sentences have been imposed on young adolescents,” he says in the brief.

The cases will likely be argued next spring and decided by the end of June.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.