Friday, January 20, 2012

U.S. Supreme Court Takes Yet Another Look at Juvenile Sentencing

This March the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases challenging a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for two men who committed murder at the age of 14.

These two cases seem to be a continuation of a trend by the U.S Supreme Court with regard to youthful violent offenders. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roper v. Simmons, holding that sentencing individuals to death for crimes they committed as youth constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Five years later, the Court decided Graham v. Florida, applying much of Roper's reasoning to hold that that it is unconstitutional to sentence individuals under the age of 18 to life without parole in non-homicide cases.

In Jackson v. Hobbs, a 14-year-old Arkansas boy was sentenced to LWOP for his role as an accomplice to the robbery of a video store during which an older teenager shot and killed the clerk. In Miller v. Alabama, a 14-year-old was engaged in a fight during which he and a buddy overpowered a 53-year-old man, and set fire to the victim’s trailer with him lying inside too weak to escape.

Miller beat his neighbor Cole Cannon with a baseball bat until Cannon was unable to move and then set fire to Cannon’s trailer, which Miller promptly exited as Cannon pleaded helplessly, “Why are y’all doing this to me?” Cannon thereafter died of smoke inhalation.

Jackson joined his older friend and cousin in the robbery of a video store. When the robbery victim, Laurie Troup, claimed that she had no money, one of Jackson’s two accomplices shot her to death. Jackson was prosecuted under the doctrine of “felony murder.” The doctrine allows Jackson to be charged with the fatal shooting because he took part in the robbery.

Miller and Jackson were both fourteen years old at the time of their crimes. In each of the two cases, the trial court lacked the discretion to impose a less severe sentence than life without parole.

The Supreme Court will resolve whether a mandatory life sentence for someone as young as 14 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Lawyers will argue that LWOP is so rare for an offender 14-years-old and the mandatory nature of the sentence— the defendants have no opportunity to present evidence of mitigation—violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Los Angeles Times wrote that only 73 offenders are serving LWOP for homicides committed at the age of 14 or below.

The trend as mentioned above seems to indicate that the Court will act favorably on Jackson and Miller’s claims. The question is, will the Court outlaw LWOP for all offenders under age 18 or will the decision be more narrow and eliminate LWOP for offenders 15 or 14 years or younger?

The next question, will the court limit its ruling to felony-murder as in Jackson’s case or will it leave the door open to sentencing some young killers to LWOP? I see the Court’s decision being more nuanced than the broad decisions in Roper and Graham.

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