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November 12, 2014

Split South Carolina Supreme Court declares Miller retroactive AND applicable to state's nonmandatory LWOP sentencing scheme

As reported in this local article, "at least 15 South Carolina felons serving life sentences for homicides they committed while they were minors are eligible to return to court to be resentenced for their crimes, a divided S.C. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday." Here are the basics of the ruling: 

The 3-2 decision cites the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole in instances where juveniles commit murder....

The [Miller] ruling applied to mandatory sentences and the U.S. Supreme Court justices avoided declaring whether the new standard should be applied retroactively to older cases. South Carolina's high court, however, not only called for a rehearing of older cases but applied the new parameters to all juveniles cases where life sentences were imposed, even when that decision was at a judge's discretion.

Colin Miller, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and who participated in a moot court dry run of the Supreme Court arguments with attorney John Blume, called the high court's ruling "significant" and a victory for juvenile rights.  He said the court went beyond what many observers expected in extending projections to all juveniles facing life without parole.  "That was not a foregone conclusion," he said. "Here we have the Supreme Court of South Carolina saying the state will not impose life without parole on a juvenile without looking at the totality of the person in this situation."

I concur with the view of Professor Miller that this new South Carolina Supreme Court ruling in Aiken v. Byars, No. 27465 (S.C. Nov. 12, 2014) (available here), is a big win for juvenile justice advocates. Here are a few passages from the majority opinion that lead me to this view:

We conclude Miller creates a new, substantive rule and should therefore apply retroactively.  The rule plainly excludes a certain class of defendants — juveniles — from specific punishment — life without parole absent individualized considerations of youth. Failing to apply the Miller rule retroactively risks subjecting defendants to a legally invalid punishment....

We recognize that in holding the Eighth Amendment proscribes a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, the Court did not expressly extend its ruling to states such as South Carolina whose sentencing scheme permits a life without parole sentence to be imposed on a juvenile offender but does not mandate it.  Indeed, the Court noted that because its holding was sufficient to decide the cases before it, consideration of the defendants' alternative argument that the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles was unnecessary.  Id. at 2469.  However, we must give effect to the proportionality rationale integral to Miller's holding — youth has constitutional significance. As such, it must be afforded adequate weight in sentencing.

Thus, we profoundly disagree with the position advanced by the respondents and the dissent that the import of the Miller decision has no application in South Carolina. Miller is clear that it is the failure of a sentencing court to consider the hallmark features of youth prior to sentencing that offends the Constitution.  Contrary to the dissent's interpretation, Miller does more than ban mandatory life sentencing schemes for juveniles; it establishes an affirmative requirement that courts fully explore the impact of the defendant's juvenility on the sentence rendered.

As evidenced by the record, although some of the hearings touch on the issues of youth, none of them approach the sort of hearing envisioned by Miller where the factors of youth are carefully and thoughtfully considered.  Many of the attorneys mention age as nothing more than a chronological fact in a vague plea for mercy.  Miller holds the Constitution requires more.

November 12, 2014 at 11:28 PM | Permalink

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Comments

An interesting intersection between two of the legal blogs I read. For those who don't know, Colin Miller is better known for his work in evidence law, which he blogs about here:

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 13, 2014 1:36:29 AM

The decision is based on feelings of pro-criminal, biased lawyers on the Supreme Court. Get their home addresses. Seize the houses next door, and plant 8 released killers there. Most of the ultra-violent predators, are not just a-holes holding their macs sideways. They are disposing of competition in the drug trade. These lawyers are enabling, empowering monopolists, cold hearted,, cash counting ultra-violent predators. In the Twilight Zone of the lawyer mind their impetuousness makes them Less culpable.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 13, 2014 2:40:34 AM

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