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Court considers age limit for life imprisonment

The question of whether the Constitution imposes an age limit on being sentenced to life in prison has left the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court struggling over where to draw difficult lines.

The cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, were taken up separately by the court, but argued in tandem. Both cases involve teens who were convicted of capital murder committed when each defendant was 14 years old.

In the first case, Evan Miller and an older teen were convicted of robbing and savagely beating a neighbor until he was incapacitated, then setting the man’s home on fire while he was still inside.

The second case involved Arkansas teen Kuntrell Jackson, who committed a video store robbery with several others.

During the holdup, one of Jackson’s accomplices shot and killed a cashier. Jackson was sentenced to life in prison without parole under the state’s felony-murder law, which holds everyone involved in the commission of a felony equally responsible if it involves a murder.

Both teens appealed, arguing that their life imprisonment sentences violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. Both sentences were affirmed by state courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Tough line to draw

At oral arguments March 20, Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., argued on behalf of the defendants in both cases. He focused squarely on the court’s 2010 ruling in Graham v. Florida, which said that sentencing juveniles to life without parole in nonmurder cases violated the Eighth Amendment.

“This court recognized that children are inherently characterized by internal attributes and external circumstances that preclude a finding of a degree of culpability that would make a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole constitutionally permissible,” Stevenson said during the Miller argument.

But Justice Antonin Scalia quickly cut to the problem in these cases: How severe is too severe for juveniles?

“What about 50 years? Is that too much?” Scalia asked. “(Or) 60 years or 70 years?”

But even long finite sentences “do permit the possibility of release,” Stevenson noted.

“What’s the distinction between (age) 14 and 15?” Scalia asked.

“The younger you are, the more compelling are [the] distinctions,” Stevenson said.

“I understand, but how are we to know where to draw those lines?” Scalia asked. “The common law left it up to the jury to take account of the youthfulness of the offender.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy asked if it would satisfy the defendants to say that “the sentence cannot be mandatory, but that in some cases, it might still be imposed.”

Stevenson said it wouldn’t.

“It would (be) a mistake to equate kids with adults,” he said.

Scalia pointed out that 39 states and federal courts allow life sentences for juveniles.

“The American people have decided that that’s the rule,” he said. “(So) I’m supposed to impose my judgment on what seems to be a consensus of the American people?”

“I don’t think you can draw much comfort,” Stevenson said, “in the fact that 39 jurisdictions make this theoretically possible. That same number existed in the Graham context.”

Debating minimum age

Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman Jr. focused on the seriousness of the offense committed in the Miller case.

“Imposing life without parole sentences on aggravated murder offenders like Evan Miller is in line with the national consensus,” Neiman said.

Justice Stephen Breyer took on the line-drawing issue.

“What’s the minimum age, in your opinion, or is there any constitutional minimum at all, (you) could give, for a murder, a child life without parole?” he asked Neiman.

“I think there is a minimum low, (but) I would be hesitant to commit to a minimum without further factual development,” Neiman said.

“Do you want to say 12? Do you want to say 10? Do you want to say 9?” Breyer asked. “Because as soon as whatever you say, I’m going to say, ‘and why not 14?’”

“I would argue if I were the state up here trying to defend a 12-year-old sentence, I would argue that that was the line,” Neiman replied. “So 12 … well, no … well, yes.”

Arkansas Assistant Attorney General Kent Holt noted in the Jackson argument that “murder is the worst of all crimes. Society has drawn the line.”

But Breyer asked about the potential problem in felony-murder cases of imputing intent on teens when a mandatory life sentence is the minimum punishment.

“Do you think that such a person is less culpable, knowing only that, than a person who actually takes out a gun and shoots the teller, morally speaking?” Breyer asked.

“A legislative judgment has been made with regard to drawing a baseline for all murderers, whether they are juvenile murderers, whether they are get-away drivers,” Holt said.

When Holt said that the “the punishment for this crime reinforces the sanctity of human life,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked if that principle cut both ways.

“You say the sanctity of human life, but you’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope,” Ginsburg said. “Essentially you’re making a 14-year-old throwaway person.”

“Your Honor, I’d respectfully disagree that he’s a throwaway person,” Holt said. “We want him to come to an understanding of his own humanity. We want him to realize the enormity of his crime.”

Decisions in both cases are expected later this term.

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