The United States Supreme Court ruled today that it is unconstitutional for juveniles 17 or younger convicted of murder to be automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
This decision follows a ruling two years ago, which said life sentences for juveniles convicted crimes other than homicide could no longer be imposed.
Today’s Supreme Court ruling focused on cases in Arkansas and Alabama. On behalf of the majority, Justice Elena Kagan wrote the Eighth Amendment, which protects citizens from “cruel and unusual” punishment, “forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.”
Petitioner Juntrell Jackson was 14 years old in 1999, when he and two other boys hatched a plan to rob a video store. According to the Court’s opinion, Jackson learned while walking to the store that one of the other boys, Derrick Shields, was carrying a concealed shotgun. Jackson stood outside during most of the robbery, but after he entered the store, Shields shot and killed the clerk. Jackson was convicted in Arkansas as an accomplice to a robbery resulting in murder.
In 2003, petitioner Evan Miller, then 14 years old, was smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol in the trailer of a neighbor, Cole Cannon, when he and a friend decided to steal $300 from Cannon, who had passed out. Cannon awoke to find Miller putting his emptied wallet back, and grabbed him by his throat. Miller and his friend, Colby Smith, struck Cannon several times with a baseball bat. The duo returned later that evening to set fire to the trailer in an attempt to cover up evidence of the crime. Miller was charged with murder and convicted by the state of Alabama.
In both cases, the juvenile defendants received the maximum penalty of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. After the Court’s decision, both Jackson and Miller, as well as hundreds of others like them, are now entitled to new sentencing hearings.
Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represents Jackson and Miller, said in a statement that this case represents “an important win for children.”
The Equal Justice Initiative is a nonprofit organization which provides “legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners denied fair and just treatment in the legal system,” according to the EJI website.
“The Court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don’t allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change,” he said. “The Court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.”
In 2010, Need to Know sat down with Stevenson, who also represents Joe Sullivan, a man imprisoned for over 20 years for a rape he was convicted of committing as a 13-year-old.
“I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to say that a child, a teenager, is beyond hope, beyond redemption, beyond rehabilitation,” Stevenson said. “They change too much for us to make that prediction.”
To this day, Sullivan maintains his innocence. “I was only kid, a child. My mind wasn’t even fully developed life yet,” he said.