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The attorney for two men serving mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for crimes committed when they were 14 lauded a Supreme Court ruling today calling the sentences “cruel and unusual.”
Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative, said the court recognized that fundamental differences between adults and children should be considered in felony murder cases.
“The court has made an incredibly important step forward in recognizing what I think has been one of the great tragedies in American criminal justice,” Stevenson said during a conference call with reporters.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority opinion that mandatory life sentences prevent judges and juries from considering a juvenile’s ‘lessened culpability.’
"By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate [the] principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment," Kagan said.
In a dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the question of how long to imprison youthful offenders was not the Supreme Court’s to decide.
"Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again. [ ] But that is not our decision to make. Neither the text of the Constitution nor our precedent prohibits legislatures from requiring that juvenile murderers be sentenced to life without parole,” Roberts said.
The justices were ruling on two cases in which mandatory life sentences were given for murders committed when the defendants were 14 years old.
Evan Miller was convicted for the 2003 killing of his neighbor, Cole Cannon. Alabama prosecutors said Miller and an accomplice robbed and beat Cannon before setting his trailer on fire and killing him in the process.
Kuntrell Jackson was convicted for his role in the 1999 shooting death of an Arkansas video- store clerk. Jackson claims that he served as a lookout in the attempted robbery and did not expect to be an accomplice to homicide.
Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, said both men would be returning to state courts to seek re-sentencing. He added that the decision may affect the sentences of more than 2,000 inmates nationwide.
“We are hopeful that many people who are entitled to re-sentences will be spared life without parole,” Stevenson said.
Read the opinion here.