With the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 term concluded, legal analysts and court watchers have a lot of complicated opinions to hash out. The Health Care Act opinion may have stolen the thunder of every other opinion handed down this week, but one ruling deserves the attention of anyone involved with the criminal justice system. Two cases were consolidated that dealt with life sentences for teens convicted of murder.
As we discussed in our last post, the offenders were both 14 years old at the time the crimes were committed. They argued that their mandatory sentences of life without possibility of parole were unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment. In a 5-4 opinion, the court agreed.
The court only agreed that the mandatory sentence was unconstitutional. From this point forward, sentencing judges will have to decide on a sentence based on the individual in front of them. The possibility of rehabilitation should not be discarded without careful consideration, the majority said.
As for the offenders in these two cases, the court sent them back to the state courts for reconsideration under the new ruling. Interestingly, though, Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor included some pointed comments in their concurring opinion.
They directed their comments to the state that will handle one of the defendants. This defendant was convicted for taking part in a robbery that ended with another boy shooting a video store clerk. The defendant was convicted as an accomplice, and Breyer warned the state court that prosecutors would have to prove that the defendant either pulled the trigger or planned to pull the trigger to justify a sentence of life without parole.
Justice Samuel Alito sounded the alarm in the opinion he wrote for the dissent. He warned that a violent offender “who guns down a dozen students and teachers is a ‘child'” under this holding, even if he is minutes away from his 18th birthday. What the majority has done, he continued, is to allow that offender to persuade a judge to release him so he can kill again.
Source: Thomson Reuters Legal News & Insight, “Supreme Court: teen murderers must get parole chance,” Jim Vicini, June 25, 2012