In its last week of the term, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that could have a significant impact on the lives of some North Carolina offenders. The court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole is unconstitutional for a teen convicted of homicide. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Two cases before the court had been consolidated, both filed by offenders who had been sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed when they were 14 years old. Their states, like North Carolina, require a sentence of life without possibility of parole if the offender was under 18 at the time of the homicide (not at the time of sentencing).
What the majority did not do was to eliminate the sentence altogether. It was the mandatory nature, the absolute inflexibility of the sentencing guideline that was found unconstitutional. Sentencing decisions must take the individual offender and the circumstances of the crime into consideration. The majority said that judges must look at the offender’s age and his life leading up to the crime, among other factors.
Without providing either specific guidelines or a definitive list of factors, the majority promised the court would give any appeal of a life without parole sentence the strictest scrutiny. Kagan noted that there should be few such sentences from now on.
This opinion marks an extension of the court’s holdings in two earlier cases. In 2005, the court banned the death penalty for youths convicted of a murder that occurred before they turned 18. In 2010, life without possibility of parole was limited to murder cases; such a sentence for any other crime was unconstitutional.
Continued in our next post.
Source: Thomson Reuters Legal News & Insight, “Supreme Court: teen murderers must get parole chance,” Jim Vicini, June 25, 2012