Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Life sentences may be next social justice target

For years the left has opposed the death penalty on a variety of grounds, including a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Now two cases on the current Supreme Court docket may signal the next big liberal social justice cause: the abolition of life sentences without possibility of parole.

The two cases heard by the court yesterday are Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. In both cases, the defendants were 14-years-old at the time that they committed murder. They were subsequently convicted of the murders and sentenced to life without parole. Their attorneys are now postulating that to sentence a minor to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment.

According to a summary by Cornell University law school, Evan Miller and a friend, Colby Smith, robbed the trailer of neighbor, Cole Cannon, on the night of July 15, 2003. The pair returned to Cannon’s home later that night to find Cannon passed out from smoking and drinking. Miller took Cannon’s driver’s license and $300 from his wallet. He then tried to replace the wallet, but Cannon woke up in the process and began attacking Miller. Both boys then beat Cannon with a baseball bat until he was unconscious.

The boys then left Cannon in his trailer, but later returned to try to cover up the crime. Ultimately, they decided to set fire to the trailer in an attempt to destroy the evidence. At the time, Cannon was still alive. An autopsy ruled the death a combination of smoke inhalation, blunt force trauma, and ethanol intoxication. Miller signed a statement admitting to fighting with Cannon and robbing him, but denying setting the fire. He was found guilty of capital murder in the course of committing arson and received the mandatory sentence of life without parole. According to the Decatur Daily News, Colby Smith pled guilty and was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. He testified at Miller’s trial.

In the case of Kuntrell Jackson, the defendant was part of a trio that robbed a video store in Blytheville, Ark. According to case filings, Jackson and two other juveniles went into Movie Magic on November 18, 1999 and demanded that the clerk, 28-year-old Laurie Troup, give them her money. When she refused, she was shot in the face with a sawed-off shotgun. The three boys then fled without taking any money.

When the boys were arrested in March 2001, they all made incriminating statements. At the time of his arrest, Jackson had a long record that included shoplifting, auto theft, criminal trespass and fleeing. He was considered a serious offender even before being charged in the murder case. Jackson claimed that he was the lookout and another boy admitted to the murder according to the Arkansas Times. The killer received a sentence of life with possibility of parole. Jackson was also convicted of felony murder under an Arkansas law that imposes the same penalty on an accomplice as the actual killer.

The opposition to life without parole for minors is centered on two points. The first is that because the sentences are pronounced on minors with most of their lives before them, it violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In the original intent of the framers, this is unlikely. At the time the Constitution was written, there were no separate laws and penalties for minors. Juveniles were subject to the same laws as adults. It was not until 1899 that Chicago opened the world’s first juvenile court system.

The second point that opponents make is that minors are not fully capable of understanding the effects of their actions. The American Psychological Association argues in an amicus brief for both cases that juveniles have “diminished culpability” in three areas. First, their immaturity and undeveloped sense of responsibility can lead to “ill-considered actions and decisions.” Second, they are more susceptible to negative influences. Finally, the character of juveniles is not set as is the character of adults. The APA argues that this gives juveniles a greater chance for rehabilitation.

Attorneys for the states of Alabama and Arkansas argue that the issue is one of state’s rights which are protected by the Constitution’s 10th amendment. This amendment states that if the Constitution doesn’t grant the federal government specific powers, those powers are reserved to state governments. This means that since the Constitution does not delegate the power to regulate sentencing for murder to the federal government, then the federal government has no right to interfere with duly passed state laws.

Proponents also argue that the heinous nature of murder requires the most serious punishment. An NPR report on the hearing quotes Arkansas Attorney-General Kent Holt as telling the justices, “Teenagers must know that if you commit the worst crime, you will get the worst punishment.”

Life without parole is currently the worst punishment for juveniles. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles citing the Eighth Amendment and “the overwhelming weight of international opinion.” In Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court banned juvenile life without parole in cases other than murder, again citing the Eighth Amendment and international opinion.

The next step for criminal’s rights activists may well be to attack the life sentence for adults as well. In many countries around the world, life sentences have already been abolished. For example, in Norway, where Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people last July, the maximum sentence he will face is 21 years in prison. As more countries abolish life sentences, American liberals may press U.S. courts to follow suit based on international norms and opinion.

According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Georgia allows life without parole for minors, but the sentence is not mandatory. There are currently eight known inmates in Georgia prisons who were sentenced to life without parole as minors.

There are 2,300 inmates in the United States who were sentenced to life without parole for murders committed when they were under 18 according to PBS. Of these, 79 were convicted for murders committed under the age of 14. The decisions in the Miller and Jackson cases may affect these prisoners.

This article originally published on

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