Court Time: Is life without parole for a 14 year old cruel and unusual?

March 14, 2012

SCOTUS(Editor’s note: The Supreme Court typically hands down quite a few decisions in the month of March, some of these being quite significant.  Throughout the month, we’ll be looking at some of these significant decisions as they are announced.)

Click here for the first post on Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.

Next Tuesday, on March 20, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on two different cases back-to-back.

These cases – Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs – both pose the same question for the Court:

Is it cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, to sentence someone who was a minor at the time of the crime to life imprisonment without parole?

This question represents the latest stage in the Supreme Court’s development of how the Eighth Amendment applies to the criminal sentencing of minors.

There are two recent SCOTUS rulings that probably offer the most guidance on how the Court will rule here.

The first is 2005’s Roper v. Simmons, which held that imposing the death sentence on individuals who were under 18 years of age at time of their capital crimes is prohibited by Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The second is 2010’s Graham v. Florida, in which the Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment barred sentencing imposing life without parole on juvenile offenders who did not commit homicide.

One can see how these cases can be construed either way in the question currently before the Court.

On the one hand, the Court obviously viewed minors in both cases as having a different mindset than adults – one that made them less culpable than adults.

On the other hand, Graham’s ruling explicitly distinguishes a “juvenile nonhomicide offender,” strongly suggesting that a life sentence without parole may be acceptable for a juvenile homicide offender.

If only things were that simple: the facts in both cases currently before the Court make the question a bit more complicated.

In neither case did the juvenile offender plan the homicide – both times, they were incidental to other crimes that were intentional.

In Miller, for instance, the victim died of smoke inhalation in his trailer, which the offender, who was only 14 years old at the time, started on fire to try to conceal evidence of his beating and robbing of the victim.

Likewise, in Jackson, the victim was killed incident to an armed robbery – she was the video store clerk who refused to hand over cash to the offender and two older boys whom he was accompanying.

Moreover, the offender – Kuntrell Jackson, also 14 years old – didn’t even pull the trigger on the shotgun that killed the victim; he merely took part in the (attempted) armed robbery.

These cases are a far cry from the homicide found in 2005’s Roper, in which the then-17-year-old Christopher Simmons planned and carried out a rather heinous murder of a woman whom he had been involved in a car accident with earlier.

Despite the grisly deeds performed by the offender in Roper (the Court also took note of the fact that Simmons told several friends before the occurrence that he wanted to murder someone), the Court still found it “cruel and unusual” for the death penalty to be imposed on him.

These factual differences, along with the notion of a juvenile’s lesser culpability, will be weighed by the Court against the states’ moral
judgments to determine whether life in prison without parole is appropriate.

Regardless of how the Court rules, Kennedy will be in the majority, and, if Roper and Graham are of any indication, Kennedy will be the author of the majority opinion as well.

This will probably mean that Kennedy will, once again, be the center of attention at oral arguments next week.