Justices Weigh Life for Young Juveniles in Murder Cases

By Mark Walsh — March 20, 2012 4 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday considered the constitutionality of sentences of life without parole for juveniles age 14 and younger convicted of murder.

“You’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told the lawyer for the state of Arkansas during one of two cases the court heard. “I mean, essentially, you’re making a 14-year-old a throwaway person.”

“Your honor, I’d respectfully disagree that he’s a throwaway person,” Kent G. Holt, an assistant state attorney general in Arkansas, said in reference to the juvenile offender in his case, who was 14 when he participated in a robbery that resulted in the death of a video store clerk. The offender, Kuntrell Jackson, has made efforts to earn his GED and taken anger-management classes while in prison, Holt said.

“There’s not a special class of not guilty by reason of youth,” Holt added. "[Jackson] is still criminally responsible for what he did. And ... teenagers must know that if you commit the worst crime, you will get the worst punishment that’s available under the Constitution.”

The court’s cases on juvenile sentencing have been watched by many in the education and juvenile justice community because they have turned on modern understandings of adolescent brain development and the notion that juveniles are less culpable than adults for their mistakes.

Life without parole is the worst punishment currently available for juvenile murderers since the Supreme Court decided 5-4 in the 2005 case of Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty for offeders who committed their crimes before the age of 18 was unconstitutional. In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the court ruled 6 to 3 that the Eighth Amendment bars sentences of life without parole for juveniles in non-homicides.

“What this court has said is that children are uniquely more than their worst act,” Bryan A. Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, in Birmingham, Ala., and the lawyer for both juvenile offenders before the court on Tuesday. “They are quintessentially children in a way that the Constitution requires that we respect their child status.”

“It is unusual, and it’s our judgment that it would be cruel to declare these children fit only to die in prison given what we now know about their status, about their development, and about their potential,” Stevenson added.

Jackson, the offender in the case of Jackson v. Hobbs (No. 10-9647), 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.

Meanwhile, the case of Miller v. Alabama (No. 10-9646) 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.

There are an estimated 79 prisoners across the country serving sentences of life without parole for committing murder at the age of 14 or younger.

John C. Neiman Jr., Alabama’s solicitor general, told the justices during the Miller argument that 39 states allow 14-year-old murderers to be sentenced to life without parole.

“Imposing life without parole sentences on aggravated murder offenders like Evan Miller is in line with the national consensus, is morally justified, and is consistent with legitimate penological goals,” Neiman said.

Asked by members of the court at what age the line should be drawn for permitting life without parole sentences, Neiman said age 12 would be appropriate because, among other reasons, only 10 states permit such sentences at that age.

“You just plucked some number out of the air,” said Justice Antonin Scalia, who was a dissenter in both Roper and Graham. “Why can’t I pluck one out of the air if you pluck one out of the air?”

Scalia was most aggressive of the court’s conservatives, though, in challenging Stevenson, the lawyer for the two offenders.

“Something like 39 states allow” such life-without-parole sentences, Scalia said. “The American people, you know, have decided that that’s the rule. They allow it. And the federal government allows it. So, I’m supposed to impose my judgment on what seems to be a consensus of the American people?”

Some justices appeared to be searching for a middle ground that might not bar all life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers but might require more case-by-case analysis.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinions in both Roper and Graham, asked at one point, “If the [trial] judge were to determine, under a rule that the sentence can’t be mandatory, whether or not life should be imposed, what would be the sorts of factors that he would look at?”

Justice Elena Kagan noted that “in the death penalty context, we have insisted on individualized sentencing. And in Graham, of course, we equated juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole to adults who were sentenced to death and said that those two should be treated equivalently. And I’m wondering whether that doesn’t suggest that the rules we have in the death penalty context about individualized sentencing ought to apply to juveniles who are sentenced to life without parole?”

Decisions in the cases are expected by late June.

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