WASHINGTON — A divided U.S. Supreme Court Monday threw out Arkansas' sentencing law that mandated life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.
WASHINGTON — A divided U.S. Supreme Court Monday threw out Arkansas’ sentencing law that mandated life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.
The 5-4 decision likely will require new sentencing hearings for more than 2,000 convicts who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole for murders committed while under age 18, analysts said.
About 60 of them are imprisoned in Arkansas including Kuntrell Jackson, the plaintiff in the case ruled upon by the nation’s highest court.
“This is an important win for children,” said Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama attorney who represented Jackson before the Supreme Court.
Jackson was 14 when he and two other boys robbed a Blytheville video store in 1999. One of the other boys shot and killed the store clerk. An Arkansas jury later convicted Jackson of capital murder for the crime, which carried a mandatory life-without-parole sentence.
In striking down such mandatory sentencing for juveniles, Stevenson said, lower courts will have to conduct new sentencing hearings where judges consider children’s individual characters and life circumstances, as well as the circumstances of the crime.
Marge Utley, whose daughter was the murdered store clerk, was disappointed that Jackson could get another sentencing hearing.
“It is very hard. Now, I have to go through the trial again. It’s not good,” said Marge Utley in a telephone interview from her Blytheville home.
Jackson, now 26, is being held at the maximum security unit in Tucker.
Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel did not comment directly on the ruling. A spokesman said the Attorney General’s office was evaluating the ramifications of the decision.
“We respect the Supreme Court’s decision in this matter, and we anticipate moving forward with proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion,” said Aaron Sadler.
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families urged state prosecutors and legislators to do away with life sentences for juveniles.
“We need to work on rehabilitating these kids and making sure those that do get better have a chance at starting over,” said Paul Kelly, a senior policy analyst at AACF.
Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Birmingham, brought two cases before the Supreme Court – Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama - that involved individuals sentence to life-without-parole for murders committed when they were 14 year olds.
Jeff Rosenzweig, a civil rights attorney in Little Rock, said that there are about 60 convicted murders in Arkansas serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed while they were juveniles.
Those individuals will have to petition for their sentences to be reviewed by their local courts in light of Monday’s Supreme Court ruling. It will likely take several years for all of them to be sorted out.
The decision could also have an effect on a pending case in Jefferson County Circuit Court.
Christopher Beverage, now 18, was charged with capital murder and other offenses stemming from the death of Leonard “Sandy” Wall, who was a guard at the juvenile detention center when Beverage, Nicholas Dismuke, and Brandon Henderson escaped Jan. 30, 2010.
Beverage was 16 at the time, as was Dismuke, who was also charged as an adult in the case but has since been sent to juvenile court after the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors failed to provide the defense with the names of two witnesses who testified at a hearing for Dismuke last year.
Henderson, who was 18 at the time of the escape, has pleaded guilty to lesser charges and is serving his sentence in prison.
As for Jackson, he will remain in prison while the Arkansas Supreme Court decides how to move forward. Rosenzweig expects that they will vacate his life-without-parole sentence and require a new sentencing hearing.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said that mandatory life-without-parole sentences violate the Eighth Amendment’s protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The court decision builds on two prior cases in which the Justices ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to death for any crime and that they could not be sentenced to life-without-parole for crimes not involving a homicide.
In cases of murder, Kagan said Monday that mandatory life-without-parole prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s “lessened culpability and greater capacity for change.”
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined in the majority.
While not ruling out the possibility of such a sentence for a juvenile offender, the majority suggested it should be rarely considered.
Breyer and Sotomayor would have gone farther saying that Jackson, in particular, should not face a life-without-parole sentence because a jury did not find that he killed or intended to kill.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the dissenting opinion that reality speaks against the idea that life-without-parole is “cruel and unusual” punishment given that more than 2,000 juveniles across 29 states are now serving such sentences.
“In recent years, our society has moved toward requiring that the murder, his age notwithstanding, be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. Members of this Court may disagree with that choice … but that is not our decision to make,” Roberts said.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined in dissent.
Thomas and Scalia offered a further rebuke to the majority saying that the meaning of “cruel and unusual punishment” had been distorted from its original intent.
“Cruel and unusual punishment as originally understood relates to the character of the punishment and not to the process by which it is imposed,” they said.