« "How America Overdosed on Drug Courts" | Main | Two notable voices from the (far?) right calling again for drug war and sentencing reform »

May 21, 2015

Examining what qualifies as an LWOP sentence for purposes of Graham and Miller

This new piece at The Marshall Project, headlined "Life Expectancy: How many years make a life sentence for a teenager?," spotlights an Eighth Amendment issue that has been engaging lower courts in the five years since SCOTUS in Graham began putting limits of LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders.  Eventually the Supreme Court will have to resolve the issue of just what qualifies as an LWOP sentence, and here is an account of issue (with some links to notable rulings):

James Comer was 17 when he, an older cousin, and their friend made a series of violent and irreversible decisions: One night in April 2000, they robbed four people at gunpoint. They followed one of their victims for miles as she drove home from her night shift as a postal worker, then pointed a gun at her head outside her house.  Comer’s friend, 17-year-old Ibn Ali Adams, killed their second victim when he discovered the man had no money.

Comer’s youth, his lawyers argue, was at least partly responsible for his poor judgment and impulsive behavior. And it is his youth that may save him from dying in prison. Earlier this month, an Essex County, New Jersey, judge ordered a new sentencing hearing for Comer in light of Miller v. Alabama. ...

But Comer isn’t serving life without parole, at least not technically. For felony murder and multiple counts of armed robbery, he was sentenced to 75 years. He will be eligible for parole, but not until his 86th birthday — more than 20 years past his life expectancy, according to actuarial data his lawyers cited. This sentence “amounts to de facto life without parole and should be characterized as such,” the judge wrote.

Miller v. Alabama was the third in what’s come to be known as the “Roper/Graham/Miller trilogy” of cases in which the Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that kids are different. Teenagers’ still-developing brains make them more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to understand the consequences of their actions. This makes them less culpable than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation as they mature, the court said.

With Roper, the court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. With Graham, it struck down life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide crimes. With Miller, the justices forbid mandatory life-without-parole sentences, even for murder. Life sentences for juveniles are allowed only if the judge first has the chance to consider how youth and immaturity may have contributed to the crime....

Now a growing number of courts are interpreting the trilogy even more broadly, applying their principles to cases, like Comer’s, that aren’t explicitly covered by the court’s rulings.

“When read in light of Roper and Graham,” Miller v. Alabama “reaches beyond its core holding,” the Connecticut Supreme Court held last month in State v. Riley. In that case, 17-year-old Ackeem Riley was sentenced to 100 years in prison after he shot into a crowd in a gang-related incident, killing one teenager and wounding two children.  The court ordered a new sentencing hearing, finding that the sentencing judge had not adequately considered Riley’s youth.  Though Miller specifically targeted mandatory life without parole sentences — technically, Riley’s sentence was neither mandatory nor life without parole — the Supreme Court’s reasoning “counsels against viewing these cases through an unduly myopic lens,” the Connecticut court said.

Courts have handed down similar rulings in Wyoming, Florida, California, Iowa, and Colorado.  Another case is pending in Ohio.

In Brown v. Indiana, the state supreme court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Martez Brown, who was 16 when he and two friends killed a couple in a botched robbery. Quoting Miller, the court ruled that “similar to a life without parole sentence, Brown’s 150 year sentence ‘forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal.’”  Although Brown’s sentence was not formally a life-without-parole sentence, they wrote, “we focus on the forest — the aggregate sentence — rather than the trees — consecutive or concurrent, number of counts, or length of the sentence on any individual count.”

May 21, 2015 at 05:32 PM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e201b8d1180247970c

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Examining what qualifies as an LWOP sentence for purposes of Graham and Miller:

Comments

The lawyer is always biased in favor of and will always take the side of evil.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 22, 2015 2:00:43 AM

How is it impetuous to follow the victim for miles? Is it a salvageable person who then kills because the victim has no money?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 22, 2015 1:25:35 PM

I wonder if there is good actuarial data on the life expectancy of men serving long prison sentences, which, if available would probably show a shorter life expectancy than a member of the general public (although that isn't a foregone conclusions - while mortality outcomes are worse for most inmates than they would be if they were free; young, poor black men have lower death rates from trauma and certain kinds of ill health that are easily preventable with access to health care than comparable men who are not in prison, and reduced death rates at young ages disproportionately increase life expectancy).

Posted by: ohwilleke | May 22, 2015 4:46:28 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB