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October 29, 2010

Noting the impact of Graham for all juve LWOP sentences

Today's Wall Street Journal take note of the echoes of the Supreme Court's ruling last Term in Graham v. Florida via this effective article, headlined "Judges Forced to Revisit Juveniles' Life Sentences." Here are excerpts:

Judges are grappling with whether it is ever proper to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole in light of a Supreme Court decision that such a punishment for non-murderers is cruel and unusual....

Since the decision, state courts have been reducing the sentences of prisoners covered by the ruling.  An Iowa judge last month decided that Jason Means, 34 years old, who was serving life without parole for a kidnapping committed when he was 17, was eligible for parole.

Approximately 150 inmates are automatically eligible for lighter sentences, according to attorneys.  But the impact could be broader still as the ruling has emboldened attorneys nationwide to push for shorter sentences for juveniles serving life sentences for murders, a larger inmate population.

Roughly 2,500 inmates are serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, according to one 2009 survey by Human Rights Watch, which opposes such sentences. Forty-four states allow life without parole for juvenile offenders, generally defined as being under 18 when they committed their crimes, while six states bar such sentences. The vast majority were convicted for homicides, so they don't automatically qualify for resentencing under Graham, according to attorneys.

For example, Joseph Ligon, 73, a Pennsylvania inmate who has been in prison about 57 years, is challenging the life-without-parole sentence he received for his role in two murders committed when he was 15. Mr. Ligon "has learned and grown," said his attorney Bradley Bridge.  "The child who went to prison in 1953 no longer exists."

Mr. Ligon's appeal is likely to be one of hundreds of cases testing the reach of the Supreme Court ruling.  Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that contends that Graham should apply to the case of an inmate sentenced to life without parole for killing a police officer at the age of 15....

Prosecutors say a relatively small number of juveniles receive life without parole, and there should be little leniency.  "There are millions of young kids who do not commit outrageous crimes," said Scott Burns, the head of the National District Attorneys Association.  "To say we can excuse a small percentage who do just because their frontal lobe hasn't developed is not persuasive."

Defense lawyers and juvenile-justice advocates, who plan to test the reach of the Supreme Court ruling in cases across the country, concede that it will be difficult to persuade judges to significantly reduce life sentences in non-homicide cases, let alone to offer sentencing relief in murder cases.

Indeed, courts in Alabama and Missouri have already declined to extend the Supreme Court ruling to murder cases involving juveniles.

On Monday, a state judge in Michigan handed down a life-without-parole sentence to Dakotah Eliason, 15, who was convicted of murdering his step-grandfather earlier this year.  The defendant, who was 14 at the time of the murder, had suffered recent traumas, including the deaths of his cousin, friend and dog, according to his lawyer, Lanny Fisher.

October 29, 2010 at 08:57 PM | Permalink

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Posted by: a | Oct 30, 2010 1:36:04 AM

If one is upset by many family losses in a row, one tends to not want any more by assassinating members of one's family.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 30, 2010 9:12:47 AM

I agree with the Supreme Courts decision

Posted by: Douglas (Watkins) | Oct 30, 2010 12:04:29 PM

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