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December 18, 2007

A severe juve sentence seeking SCOTUS attention

How Appealing does a great job here collecting resources relating to the cert petition filed yesterday in the in Pittman v. South CarolinaThis AP article provides the basics:

Attorneys have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case of a teen sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing his grandparents when he was 12, arguing that the sentence is cruel.... In the brief submitted to the high court late Monday, attorneys from the University of Texas School of Law argued that the 30-year sentence violates Christopher Pittman's Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

The adverse ruling from the South Carolina's highest court, which can be found here, rejected the defendant's constitutional challenge by stating, inter alia, that "we do not believe that evolving standards of decency in our society dictate that it is cruel and unusual to sentence a twelve-year-old convicted of double murder to a thirty-year prison term."

The cert petition, which Howard Bashman has made available for downloading via this link, presents these three questions:

I.  Is a sentence of 30 years without possibility of parole constitutionally disproportionate as applied to a 12-year-old child?

2.  Are the mitigating qualities of youth relevant to whether a 12-year-old's non-capital sentence is constitutionally disproportionate?

3.  Does the Eighth Amendment prohibit the imposition of a sentence of 30 years without possibility of parole on a 12-year-old child where the sentencer was absolutely precluded from considering youth as a mitigating factor justifying lesser punishment?

For lots and lots of reasons, I really hope the Supreme Court takes this case.  In fact, I think Pittman is a much more important and consequential case than the child rape capital case from Louisiana (Kennedy) that many SCOTUS watchers are watching so closely.  But, because capital cases always seem to drawn unique interest from the Justices, I'd probably bet Kennedy is a more likely grant than Pittman.  (In my perfect (and very, very unlikely) world, these cases would be consolidated for one mega-argument about the modern scope and reach of the Eighth Amendment.)

December 18, 2007 at 04:38 PM | Permalink

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» The Nuances of Pittman v. South Carolina from Crime and Consequences
Doug Berman highlights a potential case that might be granted cert by the Supreme Court involving a 30 year sentence for a teen who killed his grandparents when he was 12 years old. Ed Silverman adds an interesting twist to... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 19, 2007 12:24:49 PM

» The Nuances of Pittman v. South Carolina from Crime and Consequences
Doug Berman highlights a potential case that might be granted cert by the Supreme Court involving a 30 year sentence for a teen who killed his grandparents when he was 12 years old. Ed Silverman adds an interesting twist to... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 20, 2007 12:12:35 AM

» The Nuances of Pittman v. South Carolina from Crime and Consequences
Doug Berman highlights a potential case that might be granted cert by the Supreme Court involving a 30 year sentence for a teen who killed his grandparents when he was 12 years old. Ed Silverman adds an interesting twist to... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 20, 2007 12:21:51 AM

» The confused world of child psychiatry from Overlawyered
There's been a lot of news lately involving child psychiatry. As noted by others, the Supreme Court may grant cert in the case of Pittman v. South Carolina which has the interesting twist that the... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 10, 2008 9:54:35 AM

Comments

The dissenting S. Carolina Supreme Court justice's observation that the child was beaten just ten minutes before the killing, yet the jury was not given a voluntary manslaughter charge is certainly notable.

Issues like what constitutes a "heat of passion" time period are very age dependent.

If cert is granted the question the judges will be asking is "Where do we draw the line?", "How much is constitutional? Twenty years? Ten years? Until age twenty-one?"

The attractive alternative way to draw the line would be to hold that twelve year olds are constitutionally incapable of holding the scienter associated with pre-meditated murder to which a thirty year sentence applies, and that this de jure lack of scienter is what makes this sentence cruel and unusual. This has the virtue of dovetailing with the death penalty jurisprudence quite well, while leaving state legislatures with considerable leeway in a democracy reinforcing ruling. South Carolina could simply change its laws to impose a thirty year mandatory minimum sentence for heat of passion voluntary manslaughter, but it probably wouldn't.

The downside of such an argument, of course, is that it does nothing in, e.g., a child felony murder case.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Dec 18, 2007 5:18:18 PM

Was the child 12 when he actually went to trial? Usually when a 12 year old commits a crime, the prosecution delays trial a few years until the kid hits puberty, so he's not a cute kid but rather an annoying, pimply, angry teenager. Smart but evil strategy. They did that in the Lohstroh case down here in Houston / Harris County. Kid got a long sentence.

I wish people were as cynical as I am, so they'd notice stuff like this. It's a problem that "cynical" has become a bad word these days.

Posted by: bruce | Dec 18, 2007 6:36:04 PM

The instructional issue ohwilleke notes is not one of the questions defense counsel chose to include in the "Questions Presented" of the cert. petition.

The problem with the incapacity to premeditate argument is, as I understand it, that it is simply not true as a matter of developmental psychology. Premeditation is really a rudimentary cognitive function, and testimony that a person was incapable of premeditation as a result of intoxication or whatever is usually bogus. I suspect that's true here, but maybe someone who knows more dev. psych. than I do can chime in.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Dec 18, 2007 6:38:58 PM

I'm sorry, but I don't see the key issue here as sentencing. I agree with ohwilleke, the appropriate question is scienter.

Additionally, it concerns me that some scholars believe any sentence they find outrageous must be unconstitutional. One test of respect for the Constitution, it seems to me, is the ability to say, "That's crazy and terrible and offensive and clearly constitutional." Some questions are left up to politics and the people, messy as that may be.

Posted by: Trent | Dec 18, 2007 6:39:05 PM

test

Posted by: bruce | Dec 18, 2007 6:58:48 PM

Was the child 12 when he actually went to trial? Usually when a 12 year old commits a crime, the prosecution delays trial a few years until the kid hits puberty, so he's not a cute kid but rather an annoying, pimply, angry teenager. Smart but evil strategy. They did that in the Lohstroh case down here in Houston / Harris County. Kid got a long sentence.

Occasionally, prosecutors gather evidence and witnesses in preparation for a trial. Some trials involve motion practice and discovery too. If it goes to trial and the defendant wants a jury, the court court has to round one up. And sometimes, just sometimes, when prosecutors file cases in courts, those courts have other cases that they have to hear, and there are clerks who have to schedule those cases around each other.

My guess is that juries find murder a little more annoying than pimples.

Posted by: | Dec 18, 2007 7:02:09 PM

And sometimes, 7:02:09 PM, prosecutors intentionally delay the trial so the kid isn't so kid-like anymore. Right?

Posted by: Anon | Dec 18, 2007 7:11:23 PM

In a perverse way, it's a shame that this case doesn't have worse facts. I'd rather have a case before the Court with a defendant who is 12 yeara old serving life without the possibility of parole for an offense in which he didn't kill somebody. I mean, 30 years is bad, but I think reasonable minds could differ on whether it is really, really egregious.

Trent, could you please point out examples of scholars who think that any sentence they find outrageous must be unconstitutional? Or are you just making up strawman arguments? If the latter, then please stop wasting our time.

Posted by: Confused | Dec 18, 2007 7:12:20 PM

I dont know how I can possily make an argument and leave emotion out of it. This case is outrageous. Naturally, there most be a punishment, but it most be proportionate. I'm not trying to minimize the crime of murder, but a 12 year old is not mentally capable of reasoning as an adult. That is why we have laws that keep adults from taking advantage of them. That is why we make it a crime for anyone under 18 to run away from home. that is why we don't allow them to vote. I dont know how can people elect so heartless district attorneys.

Now, in a more logical perspective. If the court found, that an insane person is not capable of going to trial and taking responsabilities for its actions, then clearly, a 12 year old is not either. If the court rule the punishment constitutional, they should also be ready to grant a 12 year old full rights granted by the constitution and remove all limitation by the governments to their freedom.

Posted by: EJ | Dec 18, 2007 7:53:03 PM

Cognitive dissonance: truth, justice and the American way. Ten minutes before the murders he was one of our "most vulnerable citizens" that deserved our "if saves just one child" protection, and a man a 1,000 miles away could get mandatory years for adult chats or sending him adult pictures or might get death if molesting/raping him. Ten minutes later this "most vulnerable citizen" is an adult at 12-years-old. If he were a adult woman in an abusive relationship, he would be shown sympathy and mercy, might even be excused. Would a 12-year-old girl get 30 years?

Cognitive dissonance.

Posted by: George | Dec 18, 2007 8:00:49 PM

Confused, I'm actually surprised that you're confused. So many policy topics are today discussed as if the speaker's preferences must define constitutionality. I posted the comment on this post because I read the flavor of Prof. Berman's comments to, perhaps, imply such an assumption. Your comment might be read that way as well, if you mean to imply that "really, really egregious" means it simply must be unconstitutional somehow.

Posted by: Trent | Dec 18, 2007 8:07:34 PM

Ah, I see Trent. If you simply read into someone's post (preferable someone whose point of view you don't like) a legally indefensible position, you can then mock them for having a legally indefensible position. That way, you don't even have to engage them in debate because hey. Thanks for your contribution.

Posted by: Confused | Dec 18, 2007 10:24:12 PM

I found the answer to my question. The boy was 15 when he finally went to trial. Three year delay. Here is a picture of him in court. $20 says he was much cuter and more sympathetic-looking when he was 12. There's a huge difference between a 12 year old and a 15 year old. I assure you it was not the defendant seeking delay in the case.

Posted by: bruce | Dec 19, 2007 12:46:54 AM

Confused, I'd rather say you seem to be the snarky one. I'm agreeing that this prosecution, conviction, and sentence ar all at the very least problematic. It seems like the rationale(s) are important to define, however. I guess I touched a nerve...

Posted by: Trent | Dec 19, 2007 2:25:44 AM

Bruce,
you are right.I also believe that the prosecutor, purposely delayed the trial. Not to mention, sending a 15 year old to an adult prison is not only cruel punishment, although not usual, but it's a reflection of the kind of society that we have.

Posted by: EJ | Dec 19, 2007 9:20:07 AM

While talking about length of sentence, how do the facts of this case not get discussed? Surely age is not the only relevant factor. This kid had a history of violent behavior -- chased his sister with a baseball bat, choked another kid. He then shot his grandfather in the mouth with a shotgun while he slept and used the same gun on the back of his grandmother's head. Oh and he set fire to the house to destroy evidence of the crime. He then took their car and went out to the woods with a shotgun. When found, he lied and claimed he'd been kidnapped.

On top of the facts -- the judge here gave him the minimum permitted by law. Assuming credit for time served, he'll be back in society at 42.

Posted by: JustClerk | Dec 19, 2007 9:25:05 AM

This is probably an article worth blogging about (juvenile life sentences w/o possibility of parole):

Group wants limit on sentences for juveniles
By JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star
http://www.journalstar.com/news/local/doc4768575f920d2815727997.txt

Article focuses on a kid (now man) who killed his adopted sister at age 14, and has spent the last 20+ years in prison under his LWOP sentence.

Posted by: Sentencing Observer | Dec 19, 2007 12:06:29 PM

Are there any data about recidivism among young murderers who are eventually released?

Posted by: William Jockusch | Dec 19, 2007 1:37:07 PM

Kent, I don't think you can so quickly dismiss the claim that his brain may not have been capable of forming premeditation. At a minimum, the child in this case had a still developing brain. Add in the factors that the dissenting judge mentioned (previous inpatient treatment for depression, being on psychological medication, having been beaten apparently on the head with a paddle previously, reports of previous emotional issues, previous move, a recent change of medication) and the trial court probably should have considered some form of diminished capacity. Those circumstances definitely suggest that some form of diminished capacity may have been present. While the science is not exact, the juvenile mind is different from the adult mind. Especially in a case where a child was obviously mistreated (the grandfather never should have hit a child who was on such medications and who had been in a psychiatric institution as being a danger to self, for example - he is definitely not a blameless victim) and is under the influence of psychological medication, the exact form of brain functioning is not clear.

Keep in mind that we are talking about not only a juvenile brain, but a likely abnormal juvenile brain under the influence of mind-altering medication. The majority opinion and trial court did not seem to keep that fact in mind. You cannot make blanket statements about such a child as this, because there is scientific uncertainty. Justice probably would have been better served by treating this case as a mental health issue from the start - which would have started with examining the child's capacity to form intent and premeditation including examining the child's response to threats under the influence of the medication. A child is not the same as an adult - adding emotional and mental disburbances and antidepression medication to a developing brain is exactly the type of case where the courts should place capacity evaluations at the top of the agenda. It seems that prosecutors and the court forgot their main role is to do justice - but our criminal justice system does a horrible job with people with mental illnesses in general. And treating a child with potential mental illness (at the minimum, there were emotional issues) as an adult is not doing justice - it is punishing without purpose.

Posted by: Zack | Dec 21, 2007 5:29:03 PM

Great Job! Great Site! Very Interesting! Thanks!

Posted by: מוסך פורד | Jan 6, 2011 6:22:21 AM

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