Supreme Court Again Takes Up Juvenile Life Without Parole

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The U.S. Supreme Court will again consider cases that could further set limits on when life without parole sentences can be imposed on juvenile offenders.

The cases offer several possibilities for LWOP limitations, including one based on age or whether the youth is the actual killer or the person who sets in motion the action that leads to death.

Just 18 months after the high court’s ruling in Graham v Florida banned LWOP sentences for any juvenile accused of a non-homicide offense, it agreed today to accept two cases – Jackson v Hobbs and Miller v Alabama that involve 14-year-olds who were convicted of homicides.

Both cases challenge whether the LWOP sentence given to the convicts are constitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative appealed the two cases to the high court in April. In the same month, a New York University study identified 10 courts that have decided not to apply Graham to cases involving killings, and seven other cases where courts have said the same thing about defendants who were convicted as a "non-triggerman accomplice."

The first case involves Kuntrell Jackson, from Arkansas, who was sentenced to life without parole in connection with a fatal shooting during the robbery of a video store in 1999. Jackson was present with two older teens at the robbery, but was outside of the store when a clerk was shot and killed.

The second case, arising from Alabama, involves Evan Miller, who was convicted of killing a 53-year-old neighbor in 2003. A fight broke out between the man, Miller and an older youth; the two youths beat the neighbor to the point he could not get to his feet. Miller then set the neighbor’s home on fire, and the man died of smoke inhalation.

The court could choose to limit juvenile LWOP sentences in several ways:

-A complete ban on LWOP for juveniles. Such a ruling would affect more than 2,500 current inmates. More than half of those inmates are located in four states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Louisiana and Florida.

-A ban on LWOP for juveniles below the age of 15. This appears to be what will be asked for by the offenders’ lawyers, both of whom work for tthe Equal Justice Initiative. There are only 73 current LWOP inmates who were convicted for crimes they committed when they were 14, and nine others who were convicted when they were younger.

Justices have explored the idea of bright-line rulings that would distinguish younger juveniles from older ones in two recent cases – Graham and JDB v North Carolina, which dealt with police questioning – but decided against it in both cases.

-A ban on LWOP for juveniles who did not commit the act that resulted in homicide. Many of the inmates doing LWOP sentences for juvenile offenses, including Jackson were convicted of homicide because they were present for the action that precipitated a homicide. This is the key difference between the two cases taken up by the court today.

-Judicial review of juvenile LWOP usage in mandatory sentencing schemes. In both cases, the court’s list of “questions presented” includes references to the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles to LWOP under mandatory sentencing schemes that categorically preclude consideration of the offender’s age.

Such a ruling would seem to fall in line with Chief Justice John Roberts’ suggestion during the Graham oral arguments that requiring review of LWOP in all juvenile cases would be more practical than a categorical ban on the sentence for certain offenses.

According to a piece posted today by SCOTUSBlog legal analyst Lyle Denniston, who has covered the Supreme Court for more than 50 years, the court intends to hear the oral arguments back-to-back, and hearings “are likely to be in late February, with the decision before next summer.”