Saturday, March 14, 2020

GateHouse: Supreme Court takes another look at juvenile life without parole

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
March 13, 2020
During the summer of 2004, 15-year-old Brett Jones was living with his grandparents in Lee County, Mississippi. One afternoon Jones got into an argument with his grandfather and stabbed him to death.
Jones had claimed he acted in self-defense. Prosecutors argued that Jones was an angry young man who killed his 67-year-old grandfather by deliberately stabbing him eight times, hiding his body and fleeing.
Jones was tried and convicted of first-degree murder. The court sentenced Jones to a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole - the only sentence available at the time.
Less than three months before the verdict in Jones’ case, the United States Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juveniles. In Roper v. Simmons, the high court ruled that a national consensus had established the nation’s evolving standards of decency against executing juveniles.
The Supreme Court’s ruling permitted Jones to narrowly escape execution. That is not the only time a Supreme Court ruling would indirectly help Jones. Now his case is scheduled for review by the Supreme Court.
The journey that Jones has taken through the criminal justice system exemplifies the high court’s evolution as it relates to the punishment of juveniles.
In 2010, in a case out of Florida, 17-year-old Terrence Graham was convicted of a home invasion and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. A year earlier, he was convicted of burglary and attempted armed robbery.
In Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court ruled that a juvenile can only be sentenced to life without parole if he is convicted of murder. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The concept of proportionality is central to the Eighth Amendment.” As a result of abolishing the most serious punishment - death - for juveniles, the penultimate punishment - life without parole - must now be reserved for murder.
Two years later, the high court further restricted punishment for juveniles, ruling in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life in prison for juveniles was unconstitutional. At the time, there were about 2,500 inmates serving life sentences for murders committed as juveniles.
However, the court did not determine if the Miller decision was retroactive until 2016. Once the court ruled that all inmates sentenced to mandatory life in prison prior to Miller were entitled to be resentenced, Jones’ case came back to a Mississippi court for review.
The Mississippi Supreme Court vacated the sentence and remanded the case to the circuit court for resentencing. The circuit court conducted a hearing and found that Jones was not entitled to parole eligibility under Miller.
This week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Jones’ appeal. The issue raised by Jones is whether a court resentencing a juvenile lifer must determine, and make a finding, that an inmate is not amenable to rehabilitation and is incorrigible. The sentencing court in Jones’s case did neither.
One insight into what the Supreme Court may be thinking is to look at the oral argument last fall in the case of Lee Boyd Malvo, the juvenile D.C. Beltway Sniper, whose case became moot after Virginia enacted a new law that made juveniles, who were sentenced to life in prison, eligible for parole after they had served 26 years.
According to the New York Times, several justices during the Malvo argument indicated that consideration of incorrigibility was important. Left-leaning Justice Elena Kagan said the court’s prior retroactivity decision could be boiled down to two words: “Youth matters.”
Conservative Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh said the Court’s prior rulings required judges to distinguish between “someone who’s merely immature as opposed to incorrigible.“
Will the Supreme Court come to the aid of Brett Jones yet again? Only time will tell, a decision is not anticipated for another year.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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