In two separate cases, fourteen-year-old boys were convicted of homicide offenses. State law provided that the boys could only be sentenced to lifelong imprisonment without possibility of parole. The Supreme Court recently held that while a court may sentence a juvenile offender to lifelong imprisonment without possibility of parole, a mandatory sentence of life without parole fails to consider the offender’s youth and potential for rehabilitation, and thus violates the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
In November 1999, Kuntrell Jackson, then a fourteen-year-old with a criminal record, and two other boys decided to rob a video store. When Jackson learned that one of the other boys, Derrick Shields, was carrying a sawed-off shotgun, he decided that he did not want to go in and waited outside instead. Inside, Shields pointed the firearm at the clerk and demanded money. The clerk, Laurie Troup, refused. After a few minutes, Jackson entered the store to find his friends still demanding money. It was disputed whether Jackson then said to Troup that “[w]e ain’t playin’” or instead told his friends “I thought you all was playin’.” After Jackson’s remarks, Troup threatened to call the police. Shields then shot and killed Troup.
At trial, Jackson was tried as an adult and convicted of armed robbery and capital felony murder. Statute provided that Jackson could only be sentenced to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole or to death; however, federal case law held at that time that offenders who were under the age of sixteen could not be executed. Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U. S. 815 (1988), held that capital punishment of offenders under the age of sixteen violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Thus, the only option for sentencing Jackson was lifelong imprisonment without possibility of parole.
Under Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551 (2005), the Supreme Court elaborated in greater detail what sentences, when issued against minors, constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and specifically held that juvenile offenders under the age of 18 could not be executed. Using the reasoning set forth in the details of Roper, Jackson filed a petition for habeas corpus in state court. He argued, based on Roper’s reasoning, that his mandatory sentence had violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. An Arkansas circuit court dismissed Jackson’s claim.
While the dismissal was on appeal, the United States Supreme Court issued another Eighth Amendment case with implications. In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. ___ (2010), the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibited sentencing a juvenile offender to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide offense.
Jackson then appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court; a divided decision upheld Jackson’s sentencing. The majority found that the Supreme Court precedent in Roper and Graham was narrow and only prohibited Jackson’s execution, and only would have prohibited his imprisonment for life without parole in a non-homicide case. The dissenting members of the Arkansas Supreme Court argued that Jackson’s youth should have been considered in sentencing, that any evidence that Jackson intended to kill anyone was severely lacking, and inferred the possibility that felony murder – a legal device in which a person may be convicted of murder regardless of whether they intended to kill because an individual died as a result of the perpetrator’s felonious conduct, even if the death was accidental or primarily caused by another individual involved in the crime - might be differentiated from other homicide offenses which involved intentional killing.
In a separate factual scenario was the case of Evan Miller. In 2003, Miller was a fourteen-year-old with a history of substance abuse who had attempted suicide on four separate occasions, been abused by his stepfather, neglected by his drug and alcohol dependent mother, and rotated through foster homes. One night, Cole Cannon came to Miller’s home to make a drug deal with Miller’s mother. After the deal, Miller, Cannon, and Miller’s friend, Colby Smith, went to Cannon’s trailer where they smoked marijuana and played drinking games. The three became intoxicated by their drug and alcohol use. When Cannon passed out, Miller took Cannon’s wallet, removed $300 which he split with Smith, and tried to replace it in Cannon’s pocket. Cannon awoke and grabbed Miller by the throat. Smith grabbed a baseball bat and struck Cannon once, causing him to release Miller. Miller then grabbed the baseball bat, striking Cannon multiple times. Miller then placed a sheet over Cannon’s head, proclaimed “I am God, I’ve come to take your life” and delivered one last blow. Smith and Miller fled, but soon returned to Cannon’s trailer and lit two fires so as to destroy any evidence. Cannon died as a result of his injuries and smoke inhalation.
At trial, Miller was tried as an adult and convicted of murder in the course of arson. The case carried a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed Miller’s sentence.
After their defeats in the highest state courts of Arkansas and Alabama respectively, Jackson and Miller both separately appealed their cases to the United States Supreme Court. Both argued that their sentencing had violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to both cases and then combined the cases because of the similar nature of the arguments and the relief sought.
With Justice Kagan delivering the opinion of the Court, the Supreme Court held that the mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment.
In its analysis, the Supreme Court noted first that under the Eighth Amendment, a criminal punishment must be “graduated and proportionated” to the offender and the offense. Under this rationale, the Supreme Court had previously held that sentences which were acceptable for adult offenders were not always acceptable for children. The Court went on to note that “Roper and Graham emphasized that the distinctive at tributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes. Because the heart of the retribution rationale relates to an offender’s blameworthiness, the case for retribution is not as strong with a minor as with an adult. . . . Life without parole forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal. It reflects an irrevocable judgment about an offender’s value and place in society, at odds with a child’s capacity for change.” (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Indeed, the Court noted, the law, in general, makes regular and significant exceptions for children in many matters.
Furthermore, recent cases had analogized a sentence of life without parole with a death sentence for a variety of reasons. Using this reasoning, the Supreme court held that since the death penalty required a highly individualized sentencing analysis which precludes mandatory sentencing and requires consideration of compassionate or mitigating circumstances, so too must a sentence of life without parole when issued to a juvenile.
Thus, because life without parole was analogous to death, and because children deserve certain additional considerations in receiving criminal sentences, children are entitled to an individualized sentence for homicide crimes and may not automatically be sentenced to life without parole.
In closing, the Supreme Court noted that “Graham, Roper, and our individualized sentencing decisions make clear that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles. By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.”
Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the holdings of the Arkansas and Alabama courts and created a nationwide ban on the automatic sentencing of minors to lifelong imprisonment without the possibility of parole. While judges may impose a penalty of life without the possibility of parole for minors convicted of homicide crimes, such a sentence may not be automatically imposed; a lesser sentence, such as lifelong imprisonment with the possibility of parole or a twenty-five year sentence, must also be given full consideration in light of the offender’s youth.
As a result, the cases of Jackson and Miller were thus remanded for resentencing. In a concurring opinion, Justices Breyer and Sotomayor cautioned that the Arkansas courts must exercise particular care in their sentencing of Jackson, because under Graham, a juvenile may only be sentenced to lifelong imprisonment without parole if the offender “kill[ed] or intend[ed] to kill” someone. In Jackson’s case, there were very serious doubts as to whether he had intent to kill.
This case, Miller v. Alabama, may be read here.