Supreme Court Bans Mandatory Life Terms for Kids: What it Means

A detail of the West Facade of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, Monday, March 7, 2011. The court is taking up a climate change case for the second time in four years. On Tuesday, April 19, the court will hear arguments in the case American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, 10-174. The Obama administration is siding with American Electric Power Co. and three other companies in urging the high court to throw out the lawsuit on grounds the Environmental Protection Agency, not a federal court, is the proper authority to make rules about climate change.

Additional research by Kyna Doles.

June 25, 2012
In 2007’s When Kids Get Life, FRONTLINE told the stories of five Colorado men who were sentenced to life without parole for violent crimes they committed under the age of 18.

This morning, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the mandatory sentencing of a juvenile under the age of 18 to life in prison without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional.

The majority opinion [PDF], written by Justice Elena Kagan, said that the policy violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Kagan argued that previous case law shows that children lack the maturity to make sound decisions, and that mandatory sentencing leaves no room for discretion. “…[I]mposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children,” she wrote.

The decision would still allow a judge to use discretion to assign a life sentence without parole to juveniles. But Kagan said that would be rare: “Given all we have said in Roper, Graham [previous rulings that banned the life without parole in non-homicide cases, and the death penalty for juveniles] and this decision about children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”

“It really is a historic ruling, but in our opinion it doesn’t go far enough,” because it stopped short from banning the policy outright, said Alison Parker, the director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. program.  But, she added: “It does bring the U.S. more in line with the rest of the world.”

The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that allows children under 18 to be prosecuted as adults and sentenced to life without parole; 29 states have such laws on the books, according to the ACLU. There are more than 2,500 people currently in jail nationwide who fall under this category; 79 of them were sentenced when they were 14 or younger. About 70 percent of the latter category are black or Latino.

Today’s decision follows two recent rulings that limited the type of penalties that can be doled out to underage defendants. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to death was unconstitutional; four years later, the court decided the same for juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in cases that did not involve a homicide.

With today’s ruling, people who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles will be entitled to new sentencing hearings in which judges will consider their character, life circumstances and age in determining an appropriate sentence, said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, in a statement. Stevenson represents both Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, the two young men named in the cases ruled on by the court.

“This is an important win for children,” Stevenson said. “The court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.”

Here is more on the two cases that the court ruled on today, as well as the cases of two individuals featured in our 2007 film When Kids Get Life.

Kuntrell Jackson

The 14 year old was living in Arkansas when he took part in a video store robbery with two other boys that ended in the shooting death of 28-year-old clerk, Laurie Troop.

Jackson, however, wasn’t the triggerman. Another boy, Derrick Shields, shot Troop with a sawed-off shotgun after she said she didn’t have any money.

At his trial, Jackson’s lawyer argued that he was outside the store acting as the lookout, when the murder took place. Prosecutors said he was closer to the crime, claiming that Jackson told Troop, “We ain’t playin'” before Shields shot her. But his defense team argued that Jackson said, “I thought you all was playin’,” indicating he was unaware of his co-conspirator’s violent intentions.

Because Arkansas has a felony murder statute, Jackson, who was tried as an adult, was deemed just as responsible as Shields in the murder because it took place during the process of another felony: the robbery. Jackson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

His crime took place in 1999; he is now 26. Following today’s ruling, his attorney says he’s entitled to a new sentencing hearing.

Evan Miller

On July 15, 2003, 14-year-old Miller and a friend, Colby Smith, went to the trailer home of a neighbor, Cole Cannon looking for drugs.

Cannon was passed out from drinking and doing drugs, so Miller stole $300 from Cannon’s wallet, as well as his driver’s license. But as he put back the wallet, Cannon woke up and attacked him. Miller and Smith started beating him with fists and a bat. When Cannon was still, they covered him with a sheet. To hide the evidence, they set the trailer on fire. Cannon, who was still alive, burned to death.

Miller initially denied any involvement in the crime, but later admitted to stealing the money and the license. His attorneys, asking for leniency, argued that Miller had been the victim of domestic abuse throughout his childhood. Miller was convicted of capital murder and given the mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Now in his early 20s, Miller is also entitled to a new sentencing hearing following today’s ruling.

Jacob Ind

In 1992, when he was 15, Jacob Ind hired a classmate to kill his mother and stepfather after what he says were years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. When the classmate botched the job, Ind, awakened by the gunshots and the ensuing struggle, fired the fatal shots using his stepfather’s .357 Magnum revolver.

After the killings, Ind seemed detached from the reality of what he’d done. “I didn’t really grasp the permanency of their deaths,” he told FRONTLINE. “I definitely didn’t understand the gravity of what it means to kill somebody.”

“I remember I was sitting in the police station — and this is how out of touch of reality I was,” he continued. “I had a small amount of marijuana, like an eighth of an ounce, in my bedroom. And I’m telling my brother, ‘You got to get the marijuana or else I’m in trouble.’ I’m arrested for first-degree murder, and I don’t think I’m in trouble!”

Ind was tried as an adult and, despite his brother’s testimony about their stepfather’s abuse, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder on June 17, 1994. As a juvenile, he was not eligible for the death penalty; instead, he was given a mandatory sentence of life without parole. As of 2007, more than half of his time in prison was spent in the state supermax, Colorado State Penitentiary, where he spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. He was sent there in 1995 when contraband was found in his cell.

Jacob Ind is now in his mid-30s. His attorney could not be immediately reached for comment.

Andrew Medina

At 15, Medina was living on the streets, using drugs and paling around with two other kids, Michael Brown and Derrick Miller. The three cooked up a carjacking scheme to make some money.

On July 15, 1999, Kristopher Lohrmeyer, 17, was preparing to drive home after his shift at the Colorado City Creamery, an ice-cream shop. Brown distracted him, and then Medina and Miller demanded his keys and cash. Someone fired a shot through the car’s back window, killing Lohrmeyer.

Brown and Miller cut deals with the prosecution, and said Medina was the shooter. He alone faced the first-degree murder charge, and a mandatory sentence of life without parole. He’s currently serving time in the Colorado State Penitentiary, a high-security prison.

Medina told Human Rights Watch in 2004 that he had reformed his life since his time in prison: “[I was a different] person — just the way I talk and the way I am — the way I carry myself. I don’t know, maybe it’s just what I’ve experienced. I know a lot of people, they say you have to do things to change, but I don’t think that’s true. I think a person’s change … just happens. And it’s happened to me.”

One of Medina’s lawyers, Darren Cantor, said that it wasn’t yet clear how the Supreme Court ruling would affect his client, but that he’s almost certainly entitled to a re-sentencing hearing. “There never should have been life without parole for juveniles,” he told FRONTLINE on Monday. “It’s insane.”

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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