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September 14, 2013

Alabama Supreme Court reworks state law for juve killers after Miller

As reported in this effective local article, headlined "Alabama Supreme Court sets out how juvenile killers are to be sentenced," yesterday brought a major state court ruling on how juvenile murderers must be dealt with in the wake of the Supreme Court's Miller ruling.  Here are the basics via the news report:

The Alabama Supreme Court [has] issued a ruling that says state judges can give juvenile killers sentences of life with the possibility of parole under Alabama's current capital punishment law.  The court also set out 14 factors judges could use in determining whether to sentence a juvenile convicted of a capital crime to life with or without the possibility of parole.

"This is a great result for the state and its justice system," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said in a statement issued this afternoon. "The Court has unanimously agreed with our position that prosecutors can try juveniles for capital murder and seek sentences of life without parole in appropriate cases. This gives prosecutors and judges clarity going forward, and it eliminates the limbo that victims' families have been dealing with in recent months."

The court's ruling came in response to requests by two teens charged with capital murder in two Jefferson Count cases who sought to have their capital-murder indictments dismissed because of a ruling last year by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Judges have had two options to sentence people under Alabama's capital punishment law -- death or life without the possibility of parole....

A bill had been presented this spring in the Alabama Legislature.  That bill called for giving judges the option of a life sentence with one chance at parole after 40 years.  Legislators, however, did not enact that bill before their session ended May 20.

Meanwhile attorneys for the two Jefferson County teens -- Rashad Stoves and Larry Henderson -- had argued before the Alabama Supreme Court to overturn circuit court judges rulings in their cases to dismiss the capital murder indictments pending against them because the courts did not yet have a new law in place....

"What they've done is legislate from the bench," Wendell Sheffield, an attorney for Stoves said this morning of the Alabama Supreme Court's ruling. "They are saying it is within their equitable powers ... They've taken an unconstitutional statute and have attempted to make it constitutional." Sheffield and law partner John Lentine said at this point they are reviewing the court's decision in depth and will decide whether to take the case further.

In its ruling, the court stated that it had the right to delete the portion of the law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Alabama justices stated that the U.S. Supreme Court did not give guidance on what factors judges should use in sentencing. "It is well settled that should a statute become invalid or unconstitutional in part, the part that is valid will be sustained where it can be separated from that part that is void," the court ruled....

The Alabama justices stated that with their ruling juveniles now will know that, if convicted, they face a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as a "ceiling" and life with the possibility of parole as the "floor."  To help judges decide whether the sentences should be life with or without parole, the Alabama Supreme Court set out 14 factors the judges should use based on a Pennsylvania court ruling....

Sheffield and Lentine also said that it appears from the ruling that the juvenile sentencing will be done by the trial judge, without a jury's recommendation.  In capital cases involving adults in which the death penalty is an option, juries are asked to make a recommendation.

Today's ruling also will be of interest to a number of people already serving life without the possibility of parole sentences in Alabama who were considered juveniles when the crime occurred. Some of those prisoners have already filed appeals seeking to be have their sentences changed in light of last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The unanimous 50+ page opinion from the Alabama Supreme Court is available at this link, and here is its critical closing paragraph discussing the factors that are now to be considered by Alabama sentencing judges in juve murder cases:

We agree with the juveniles that the Miller Court did not delineate specifically which factors to use in sentencing a juvenile convicted of a capital offense.  We find helpful Commonwealth v. Knox, 50 A.3d 732 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2012), which ordered that a juvenile sentenced to a mandatory life-without-parole sentence must be resentenced with a consideration of the principles annunciated in Miller. We hold that a sentencing hearing for a juvenile convicted of a capital offense must now include consideration of: (1) the juvenile's chronological age at the time of the offense and the hallmark features of youth, such as immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences; (2) the juvenile's diminished culpability; (3) the circumstances of the offense; (4) the extent of the juvenile's participation in the crime; (5) the juvenile's family, home, and neighborhood environment; (6) the juvenile's emotional maturity and development; (7) whether familial and/or peer pressure affected the juvenile; (8) the juvenile's past exposure to violence; (9) the juvenile's drug and alcohol history; (10) the juvenile's ability to deal with the police; (11) the juvenile's capacity to assist his or her attorney; (12) the juvenile's mental-health history; (13) the juvenile's potential for rehabilitation; and (14) any other relevant factor related to the juvenile's youth. See generally Commonwealth v. Knox. We recognize that some of the factors may not apply to a particular juvenile's case and that some of the factors may overlap. Nevertheless, we believe that providing the trial court with guidance on individualized sentencing for juveniles charged with capital murder comports with the guidelines of Miller.

September 14, 2013 at 11:59 AM | Permalink


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I lived in Iowa for a time. Due to absolute necessity, 14 year old boys were running $250,000 corn threshers until midnight. They did an excellent and serious job. If culpability is from potential and capacity, then the ability is there to be highly responsible. Their younger sisters competed to raise gigantic hogs for prize money.

This is the way it was with humans for 10000 years. The lawyer just made up 18 or 21 as the age of adulthood to keep them competing with his union clients.

So, again, welcome to the Twilight Zone of the lawyer propagandist in points 1 to 14. None is true in psychological research. But the simplest rebuttal is they commit fewer crimes than adults. And kindergarten students can accurately identify their peers who will become a criminal in adulthood. It is just appellate judges who have a problem doing so.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 15, 2013 9:31:51 AM

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