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Supreme Court Weighs Life Without Parole for Juvenile Murder Convicts

March 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether 14-year-olds convicted of murder should be required to spend life in prison without the possibility of parole. Gwen Ifill and The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle discuss the arguments and the issues under consideration.
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GWEN IFILL: Should a 14-year-old convicted of murder be required to spend life in prison without parole? That was the key question at the heart of a pair of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court today.

Advocates on both sides spoke outside the courtroom following the arguments.

BRYAN STEVENSON, attorney representing juveniles: I think children are uniquely more than their worst act. They have quintessential qualities and characteristics that a decent society, a maturing society, and evolved society, we believe, is constitutionally obligated to recognize and protect.

CANDY CHEATHAM, daughter of victim: He committed a heinous act. He is unremorseful to this day. And it’s almost nine years later. It was very heinous. And when you have sociopathic tendencies, and you’re not remorseful for your crime, then he doesn’t deserve to be out.

GWEN IFILL: For more on today’s arguments, we are joined by Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal.

Marcia, let’s start by describing Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, the two people who were before the court today.

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: Okay.

These were two separate cases. Mr. Miller, he actually was accused of beating a neighbor in the neighbor’s trailer and then setting fire to the trailer, and leaving the neighbor to die, who did — he did die from smoke inhalation. The Arkansas teenager was involved in a robbery of a video store.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Jackson.

MARCIA COYLE: Right, Mr. Jackson. He didn’t actually kill the salesperson in the video store, a young woman. But under Arkansas law, he was accused and convicted of felony murder, so he received the same sentence.

The issue before the court today was, is life in prison without parole for a 14-year-old, is it a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment? But the lawyer for both teens made clear that that was the least he’s asking for. He was arguing today for a categorical ban on that sentence for all juveniles who commit murders when they’re under the age of 18.

GWEN IFILL: Now, if this wasn’t about murder, if this wasn’t a capital crime we’re talking about, would we be having this conversation?

MARCIA COYLE: No.

In fact, this is the almost — I would say the third in a series of cases that the court has handled recently involving juveniles in our criminal justice system. In 2005, the court struck down the death penalty for juveniles under the age of 18. And just last term, the court also found that life in prison without parole for juveniles who do not commit murders violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

So the lawyers for the two juveniles today was saying the reasoning that supported those earlier decisions also support taking life without parole off the table for juveniles who commit murders.

GWEN IFILL: Do a lot of states have these kinds of laws on the books?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. Thirty-nine states have this sentence.

And this is important because the court, when it looks at the Eighth Amendment and whether a punishment is cruel and unusual, looks to see if there’s a national consensus that such a punishment is cruel and unusual. Justice Scalia today said, you know, 39 states have it. Why should I impose, you know, my judgment on them as to whether it’s wrong?

GWEN IFILL: If it’s not life without parole, what is the other option, just life with parole — with the option of parole?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, if a state has parole, but also a term of years.

In fact, that came up. Justice Scalia again asked the lawyer for the juveniles, well, you know, what about 50 years or 60 years? And if we said 60 years, would you be back next year arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment?

And Mr. Stevenson, representing the juveniles, said, well, you know, it would be rather cynical to say — take death — take the death penalty off the table and then impose a sentence that gets you close to death.

GWEN IFILL: Yeah. And the difference is that you mentioned juveniles. Let’s define that. Are we talking about 14-year-olds or 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds? Did it matter?

MARCIA COYLE: It did. In this case, it did. In the arguments today, the age mattered.

As I said, Mr. Stevenson, at a minimum, wants it off the table for juveniles under the age of 14. And the court seemed to be struggling with a number of scenarios. Well, it explored them. It didn’t struggle.

First of all, there didn’t seem to be a lot of interest in a categorical ban for juveniles under the age of 18. But when it came — when they started quizzing about the age, Justice Alito said, well, where — what is the age — where do you draw the line for constitutional purposes?

And Mr. Stevenson would say under 14. The lawyers for Arkansas and Alabama said, well, maybe 12.

GWEN IFILL: Is the argument that younger children or younger teenagers can’t be held — shouldn’t be held as accountable as older ones?

MARCIA COYLE: Mr. Stevenson would say, based on the court’s earlier decisions in this area, that the deficit juveniles have in judgment and maturity are not crime-specific. It doesn’t matter if it’s murder or a non-murder crime, that those characteristics apply to all juveniles under the age of 18. He said you cannot equate kids with adults.

GWEN IFILL: Now, we’re talking once again about Justice Kennedy as being the pivot point, but not just because he’s the random guy in the middle, but because he’s actually had a lot to say about these kinds of cases before.

MARCIA COYLE: He has.

In fact, he wrote the last two decisions involving the juvenile death penalty and life without prison — without — life in prison without parole for juveniles who do not commit murder. So, yes, he’s going to be very pivotal here.

And the one thing that he seemed concerned about, and several other justices as well, Justice Kagan, Justice Breyer, many of the laws now that impose life in prison without parole on juvenile murders are mandatory sentences. And some of the justices, like Justice Kennedy, were wondering, well, what is the justification for this, for saying that a juvenile defendant can’t bring up mitigating circumstances?

And so they seem to be concerned about that and bothered by that. It may eventually be one of the ways they deal with the case.

GWEN IFILL: So, there is room to say, well, we don’t like this idea, but we’re not going to roll it all the way back; we’re just going to take the mandatory guidelines. . .

MARCIA COYLE: It is absolutely one of the options.

Mr. Stevenson pointed out that there are about 2,300 juveniles serving life in prison without parole for murders they committed when they were under 18. But there are only 79 who were under age 14. And he argued that that was evidence that states, even with these laws, do not want to impose it at least on the youngest of juveniles.

GWEN IFILL: Fascinating.

Marcia Coyle, as always, thank you so much.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.