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High Court to Rule on Life Sentences for Minors

November 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases Monday over whether sentencing minors to life in prison without a chance for parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal discusses the cases with Jim Lehrer.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of non-lethal crimes. That issue was before the U.S. Supreme Court today, as the justices took up two cases from Florida. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal was there, and is now here. Marcia, good to see you again.

MARCIA COYLE: Nice to see you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Two cases, tell us quickly what they are.

MARCIA COYLE: OK. The first case involved Terrance Graham, who was 17 when he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for a series of armed robberies. The second case involved Joe Sullivan, who was 13 when he was convicted of robbing a home and later returning with an accomplice to rape, brutally rape, a 73-year-old woman.

JIM LEHRER: Now, both of these cases happened in Florida. What towns in Florida?

MARCIA COYLE: One, I believe, in Jacksonville. I’m not sure where the second one is.

JIM LEHRER: OK, but they’re both — and they’re now linked, even though they — they were separate — separate — there are some separate issues here, but they were argued together today, right?

MARCIA COYLE: They are, because they raise the same issue. They’re basically asking the court whether this sentence violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. And, as you know, that bans cruel and unusual punishment.

JIM LEHRER: And that would — that — that question relates whether the — the juvenile was 13 years old or older, right?

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Right. Now, how did the arguments go today in the court?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the lawyers for the juveniles basically have to address whether the sentence is cruel and unusual. And they told the justices that, one, it is cruel because it strips the juvenile of any hope of ever getting out of jail. It basically tells a juvenile: You will never change, never be able to take your place in society again. You will die in your cell. And they also said it was unusual because, even though a majority of states allow the imposition of this sentence, it’s rarely imposed.

States' rights at question

JIM LEHRER: Now, who -- who -- who made the arguments, and what was the -- the -- kind of the guts of the arguments they made in that -- on that side?

MARCIA COYLE: Who made the...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, who represented -- who represented whom?

MARCIA COYLE: Oh, sure.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARCIA COYLE: Bryan Stevenson represented the 13-year-old, Joe Sullivan. And a Jacksonville attorney named Bryan Gowdy, he represented the 17-year-old Terrance Graham.

JIM LEHRER: And the state of Florida was on the other side?

MARCIA COYLE: The state of Florida was represented by its state solicitor general, Scott Makar. And he argued that, if the court were to ban this sentence, it would undermine Florida's law. He said Florida had enacted tough punishments for juveniles in response to a serious juvenile crime. And he also argued that there really was no trend or -- or societal consensus that this punishment shouldn't apply, because most states have -- have abandoned or abolished parole for all offenders.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, what happened in -- what -- how did the justices handle this today?

MARCIA COYLE: The justices seemed to have trouble with drawing a line here. You know, should it be 18? Should it be 13? Well, what about 14 or 15 or 16? Which is something they -- they faced before when they considered whether they should abolish the death penalty for juveniles. Justice Sotomayor, for example, asked...

JIM LEHRER: Which they did in fact do.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, they did, in 2005. And the analysis in that case is really heavily relied upon by these lawyers for the juveniles, because, in that case, Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion, said, you know, juveniles are different. They are immature. They're not as culpable as adults. And that is what these lawyers are arguing here. They say this sentence is almost akin to a death sentence.

JIM LEHRER: Because you're going to die...

MARCIA COYLE: In jail.

JIM LEHRER: You're going to die in jail if this goes.

MARCIA COYLE: That's right. That's right.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

Establishing guidelines

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Sotomayor, for example, asked, well, what makes us more culpable after our 18th birthday? Justice Kennedy said, why should a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope, and not an adult? And Justice Alito said, well, you're asking us for a per se rule, a category rule, regardless of how horrible the crime might be, regardless of whether the juvenile shows any remorse. And the lawyers came back again to the fact that, you know, juveniles are immature; they're not as culpable as adults. There are social science studies that have said that 18 is a good line-drawing age.

JIM LEHRER: So, the issue for the other side is rehabilitation, right? I mean, if you -- if you put somebody in there forever, then they're just saying there's no such thing of rehabilitation for some crimes of some juveniles.

MARCIA COYLE: That's right. And it's just -- Scalia said there is another purpose to this sentence. And -- and that is punishment.

Minors deserve a second chance

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Is it the classic division here, 4-4 liberal/conservative, how does it fit here?

MARCIA COYLE: This is a hard one to call. I -- I think that all of the justices are having difficulty in drawing lines.

Chief Justice Roberts even suggested another way of resolving this. He said, what if we said to judges the Eighth Amendment requires you to consider youth at sentencing, but then you have to do what they call a proportionality review: Does the punishment fit the crime and the sentence? None of the lawyers liked that solution.

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

MARCIA COYLE: The Florida lawyer said, well, judges now have discretion to consider age. The juvenile lawyer said, you can't tell at the point of sentencing whether a juvenile has the capacity to grow, to change. You need to make that assessment later in the process.

JIM LEHRER: Later.

MARCIA COYLE: Give them a term of years, and then come back at some point and see if they have changed.

JIM LEHRER: And a word here. This affects mostly Florida, does it not, because that's about the -- the main state that does this.

MARCIA COYLE: They have the bulk of juvenile offenders under that particular sentence.

JIM LEHRER: How many -- how many juveniles are now under such a sentence around the country?

MARCIA COYLE: There are 111 around the country under the age of 18 who -- who were -- who were convicted of crimes when they were 18 -- under 18. There are about 77 who were under the age of 14, and the bulk of those are in Florida. In fact, Florida -- there are only two who were convicted at 13, and both of them are in Florida.

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right. Marcia, thank you very much.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Jim.