MCN/USA TODAY Network
April 30, 2021
In July 2003, 52-year-old Cole Cannon was beaten with a baseball bat and left to die in his Lawrence County, Alabama mobile home set on fire by his killers.
Evan Miller, a 14-year-old, along with an accomplice, was charged. Miller went to trial and was convicted of murder and sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprison without the possibility of parole.
Miller filed an appeal, arguing that sentencing a 14-year-old to life without the possibility of parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority in Miller v. Alabama in what would become a landmark decision wrote, “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features - among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him - and from which he cannot usually extricate himself - no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
Miller’s name became synonymous with “getting a second chance.” In 2016, the Supreme Court determined that Miller v. Alabama must be applied retroactively. The decision, a nationwide precedent-setting ruling, affected about 2,100 inmates nationwide who were juveniles when they killed.
Evan Miller will not be one of the inmates given a second chance from the decision bearing his name. This week, Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig resentenced Miller to life without parole.
According to AL.com, Judge Craig said he considered Miller’s “past exposure to violence; a history that he and two siblings were abused, beaten, and whipped; his use of drugs; and his mental health history, that included multiple suicide attempts - one attempt as early as age of 5 or 6 years old.”
The judge continued, “The crime is why we are here. We’re not here because Mr. Miller suffered abuse at the hands of his father.”
Ironically, Miller’s fate is very similar to a defendant in another 21st-century landmark criminal decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision that bears the name Atkins v. Virginia, banned the execution of the mentally disabled. In Atkins the Supreme Court failed to define mental disability. That decision was left to individual states.
As a result of the Atkins decision, states went about drafting legislation and courts began crafting individualized methods for determining mental disability. Some states decided the issue after conviction; some states made the determination before trial - but more importantly, states employed different methods for defining the same thing. Daryl Atkins’ case was sent back to Virginia to determine if he was mentally disabled. Like Evan Miller, the case named for Daryl Atkins did not result in him getting a second chance. He was resentenced to death. Atkins was later removed from death row for completely unrelated reasons and is now serving a life sentence.
In 2016, when the high court made the Miller decision retroactive the court also ruled that the severest punishment must be reserved “for the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”
Prosecutors had argued that Miller’s crime revealed he is “incorrigible and deserving of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.”
Just five days before Evan Miller was resentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, ruled 6-3 that judges did not have to make a separate factual finding of permanent “incorrigibility” before resentencing a juvenile killer to life without parole. Effectively overruling a precedent set only five years ago.
To paraphrase 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the decision to resentence Miller to life without parole is a tragedy; overruling a five-year-old precedent requiring a finding of incorrigibility is a calamity.
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 www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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