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May 19, 2018

Noting the distinctive juve sentencing realities to face the Texas school mass murderer

Yet another horrific school shooting, this time by a juvenile offender, provides yet another need to work through modern sentencing realities facing a mass murderers.  This local article reviews the sentencing basics under the headline "The accused Santa Fe shooter will never get the death penalty. Here’s why." Here are excerpts:

The high school junior accused of gunning down 10 students and teachers at a Santa Fe school is facing a capital murder charge - but he’ll never face the death penalty, even in Texas. Some day, he’ll even be eligible for parole.

Though Dimitrios Pagourtzis was charged as an adult and jailed without bond, even if he’s found guilty he can’t be sentenced to death because of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. And in the Lone Star State, he can’t be sentenced to life without parole as the result of a 2013 law that banned the practice for minors....

The Santa Fe High School student admitted to the mass shooting that killed 10 and wounded 10 others early Friday, according to court documents. He planted fake explosives and selected his targets so as to spare the students he liked, he later told police.

For an adult, that sort of crime could lead to the death chamber.  Murders involving multiple victims can be charged as capital offenses, and for adults that leaves two options: death or life without parole.

At one time, those options were both on the table for teens, too. But then in 2005, Christopher Simmons, a Missouri killer condemned to die, won a landmark case in the Supreme Court. After surveying practices in death penalty states, the justices decided that the national consensus was against executing minors.  Only a few states — including Texas —  were the outliers still carrying out death sentences for those convicted of crimes committed as minors....

Before the court’s decision, Texas had been the biggest executioner of juvenile offenders, Dunham said.  Across the nation, there were 22 convicts executed for crimes committed as juveniles - and more than half of them were in Texas. After the court eliminated the practice, in June 2005 Gov. Rick Perry commuted a slew of death sentences to life, removing 28 prisoners from death row, including 12 from Harris County.

Then in 2012, the Supreme Court took it one step further when the justices struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles.  The following year, Texas legislators passed a law making life with parole — instead of life without parole — the only sentencing option for minors charged with capital crimes. For life sentences where parole is an option, Marzullo said, the first chance at release comes after 40 years in prison.

Whether or not he’s ultimately convicted, the accused Santa Fe shooter will be behind bars for the foreseeable future.  During his first court appearance Friday night, a judge opted to hold him without bond. "At the moment he's in solitary confinement," Judge Mark Henry said after the teen's first court appearance Friday evening. "He's going to be here a while."

Because Pagourtzis slaughtered 10 people and injured many more, his case has me wondering about the application of consecutive sentences under Texas laws to potentially extend the period in which a juvenile offender would not be eligible for parole under life sentences. As regular readers know, there is a robust debate in lower courts about whether and how the Supreme Court's announced Eighth Amendment jurisprudence limiting life without parole for juvenile offenders ought to be applied in cases in which a juvenile has committed multiple very serious crimes. That debate may well end up impacting how this latest school shooter gets sentenced.

May 19, 2018 at 12:46 PM | Permalink


The mass murderer likely has 2 Supreme Court mitigating factors, the impetuosity of youth, and a serious mental illness. He could not even clean himself properly. Many people's complaining, he smelled of poop, is now called, bullying, by the pro-criminal, left wing press.

He may be released upon improvement of his mental illness, in months.

In accordance with my agreement with Doug, I am not saying anything about the lawyer profession's management of mass shootings.

Posted by: David Behar | May 19, 2018 3:14:57 PM

The case left open the possibility of him staying in prison for life.

Charles Manson has been up for parole. Didn't do him too much good. But, yes, I think it might be legitimate that he gets out let's say forty years from now. To toss a fairly large number of years out there.

"slaughtered 10 people"

Well, that's worse than simply murdering them, I guess.

Posted by: Joe | May 19, 2018 3:37:36 PM

So basically 4 years per Joe?

Posted by: federalist | May 19, 2018 8:59:39 PM

After the first the rest are free!

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 19, 2018 9:55:43 PM

No, forty years for the overall act of a minor.

SH's quip is interesting. SH thinks many felonies are worthy of the death penalty. A felony inflicted on one person would. So, what about on multiple people? By his lights, wouldn't the rest be "free" or something?

A year in prison is no cakewalk, especially for some teenager (not aware that he was some juvie type who spent years in confinement like conditions), so forty years is a very harsh punishment. But, life would be "six years per" (not counting the injuries), given an approximate 80 year life span.

So, let's say the death penalty is on the table. Again, seems like a few free, since surely if he slaughtered five people would want him dead. It just might be that there simply is no easy way to translate an "eye for eye" here and justice is more messy.

Posted by: Joe | May 19, 2018 10:18:50 PM


I actually believe many current misdemeanors are worthy of execution.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 20, 2018 12:33:46 AM

SH. You are getting your wish beyond any expectation you could ever conceive. Imagine 60,000 opioid deaths a year, each preventing 200 crimes a year for 30 years or 6000 crimes. Thank our Chinese friends mailing us carfentanyl, to increase profits on heroin by a dollar.

From NPR:


Posted by: David Behar | May 20, 2018 9:48:05 AM

Interesting that the commentary focuses exclusively yet again on the punishment of the crime yet it is obvious to all that the young man in question is and was suffering a severe mental health crisis. Are we culpable for our mental health when the impact is so catastrophic leading to violence and death? Common sense would say not. Yes, Pagourtzis is clearly a danger to himself and others. No-one yet knows if that will remain so. But it must be open to question whether prison can ever be an appropriate response to such aberations and deaths, where isolation and minimal health care (let alone mental health care) are likely to be high in his experience. There is much to be said for alternative responses to this tragedy (and I do NOT include the death penalty). But of course, the likelihood is, as with attitudes to mental health generally, remote. People are much more wrapped up in the notion of revenge and have no sympathy or understanding for a young man in mental health crisis and with easy access to devastating legal weapons "of mass destruction".

Posted by: peter | May 21, 2018 5:02:32 AM

I thought the Court got it wrong when they outlawed juvenile LWOP, and this case is an excellent example of why. Murder has a permanence other crimes lack. It should not be considered unusual to receive a permanent sentence for a permanent crime; rather, it should be routine.

If a juvenile murderer wants his life back, let him bring his victim back to life. Then he can have it.

Posted by: William Jockusch | May 21, 2018 11:12:56 PM

"outlawed juvenile LWOP"

They did not. They outlawed mandatory juvenile LWOP.

If a sixteen year old murders someone and gets out at 66, it's much longer than most murderers get.

Posted by: Joe | May 22, 2018 9:54:06 PM

In this setting, William, it is Texas that opted to outlaw juve LWOP through a statute passed about a decade ago. As Joe rightly notes, SCOTUS has only said (for now) that the Constitution precludes mandatory juve LWOP. And, as Joe also notes, states can now still give 50+ years with no chance of parole to juve offenders.

Posted by: Doug B | May 23, 2018 10:15:12 AM

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