• Is life in prison without parole for a 14-year-old involved in a homicide unconstitutional?

    Date: 11.16.11 | by Judge Tom.

    Nationwide, there are 73 inmates who are serving life sentences with no possibility of parole for their part in homicides committed when they were 14 or younger. On November 7, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two of these cases. The focus of the arguments to the Court will be the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment. A decision from the Court is expected by June, 2012.

    The Eighth Amendment reads: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” (passed in 1791) 

    Evan Miller

     

     

     

    Evan Miller was 14 when he and a 16-year-old boy got into a fight with a neighbor who was drunk. They beat him with a baseball bat, took $350 and his baseball card collection and set his trailer on fire. Cole Cannon, age 52, died of his injuries and smoke inhalation. Evan was tried as an adult and an Alabama jury convicted him of capital murder during the course of first degree arson. He was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

    Kuntrell Jackson was also 14 in 1999 when he and two friends participated in a video store robbery. One of the other boys shot and killed the store clerk. Jackson was not accused of firing the gun or intending to murder the clerk. However, he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

    There are a few cases regarding juveniles, the death penalty and life sentences that leads one to suspect that the Miller/Jackson appeals will result in the abolishment of life without parole for minors in all cases. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the imposition of the death penalty on minors was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Court stated that “The character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult.” (Roper v. Simmons)

    Then in 2010, the Court extended this reasoning to juveniles sentenced to life without parole in non-homicide cases. (Graham v. Florida) It is not too far-fetched to expect the same reasoning to be applied in the Miller/Jackson cases. Teenagers are teenagers – the degree of involvement in a crime is based on the same scientific findings regarding the development of the adolescent brain. Simply put, teenagers aren’t as morally responsible for their acts as adults because they haven’t fully matured.

    What do you think? Is a life sentence, meaning the remainder of one’s natural life, an appropriate penalty for someone 14 years old? Can you think of a situation where this might be acceptable? Does it depend on the nature of the crime or the number of people murdered?

    Update: On June 25, 2012, the Court held that life without parole for juveniles in homicide cases is an unconstitutional violation of the Eighth Amendment when it’s a mandatory sentence under state law without adding age and other factors as a consideration for the sentencing judge. This will affect approximately 2000 incarcerated juveniles and prison inmates in the U.S. serving life without parole for homicides they committed as a minor. Currently, 29 states allow such a penalty to be imposed.

    Judge Tom

    This post was written by Judge Tom. Judge Tom is the founder and moderator of AsktheJudge.info. He is a retired juvenile judge and spent 23 years on the bench. He has written several books for lawyers and judges as well as teens and parents including the recently published 'Teen Cyberbullying Investigated' (Free Spirit Publishing). When he's not answering teens' questions, Judge Tom can be found hiking, traveling and reading.

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    3 Comments subscribe to these comments.

    • Askthejudge.info
      Thu, 17 Nov 2011 at 12:39

      New blog post: Is life in prison without parole for a 14-year-old involved in a homicide unconstitutional? http://t.co/R4G1BFTc

    • Tulsa Divorce Lawyers
      Sat, 19 Nov 2011 at 02:03

      It would depend on the heinousness of the crime and the maturity level of the 14 year old. When I worked for the public defender’s office, one of our clients was a 16 year old gang banger who had shot a convenient clerk. The clerk died and the 16 year old was tried for murder. during the early stages of the case, I interviewed the 16 year old while he was incarcerated in the county jail. After the interview (which lasted about 20 minutes) I remember leaving the county jail thinking to myself ‘there is no way that guy is just 16!, he sounds like a 30 year old man!’.

    • Joe
      Tue, 10 Jun 2014 at 04:10

      I personally know Evan and he is a really intelligent well mannered person that in other circumstances could have had a very bright future. I don’t know if he did what he is accused of or not, but after spending quite a bit of time with him, I am saddened to know that he will never have a chance at a normal life. He had a very rough upbringing and really was set up for failure since birth. In my personal opinion 14 is too young to be accountable for your crimes for the rest of your life. I would suggest D.Y.S custody until you are 21 and then some sort of rehabilitation program to get you adjusted back to the “real world”. Maybe some sort of no leniency policy attatched stating that any crime will result in reinstating the life sentence.
      Thank you for your comments, Joe.

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