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Argument preview: Youthful crimes, life sentences

In two arguments, one after the other, next Tuesday, March 20, the Supreme Court returns to the constitutional issue of punishment for juveniles who commit serious crimes — this time, whether they may be sentenced to life in prison without a chance for parole after being convicted of murder.   The cases are Miller v. Alabama (10-9646), and an Arkansas case, Jackson v. Hobbs(10-9647).  The Miller case will be heard at 10 a.m., the Jackson case at 11.  Bryan A. Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., will argue both cases for the youths involved.  Alabama’s Solicitor General, John C. Neiman, Jr., will argue for the state in Miller.   Kent C. Holt of Little Rock, an assistant attorney general for Arkansas, will argue for the state in Jackson.


For a quarter of a century, the Supreme Court has been pondering the constitutional limits on punishment for minors who commit serious crimes.   Although somewhat contradictory results emerged in the earliest of those efforts, the trend line since 2005 has been steady: juveniles, as children ordinarily not as responsible for their conduct, may not be punished as severely as adults.  The interplay of two decisions that had come during that trend is now before the Court, raising the central issue of whether conviction for the worst of crimes — murder — justifies a sentence of life in prison with no chance of being freed on parole.

In Roper v. Simmons in 2005, the Court barred the death sentence for any minor convicted of murder.  And, in 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the Court barred a life-without-parole sentence for a minor who committed a crime other than murder, in which no one was killed.  The basic reasoning of both was that the immaturity of youthful judgment and moral sense makes severe punishment unconstitutional, and thus a form of cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.  Putting the two precedents together, attorneys for two youths who were 14 years old when their crimes occurred — one in Alabama, one in Arkansas — are urging the Court to rule that youthful immaturity also makes life-without-parole too severe a sentence for one so young, even when the crime was murder.

Although the outcome of the cases potentially could affect any youth under 18 who is found guilty of murder, the lawyers in the cases have been making strenuous efforts to keep the Justices focused on just how young these two are: in essence, they are asking for a constitutional line that, at least at age 14 or younger, being sent to prison for the whole of the youth’s remaining life is too severe.   Throughout the legal papers, the phrases “young teens” and “young adolescents” appear.

The reason that the Court is hearing both cases, instead of just one, is that the lawyers in one are arguing that life-without-parole is too severe for a youth who did not commit the crime and did not plan for or expect anyone to die in a planned crime, but was convicted nonetheless for a role in a murder that resulted.  Conceivably, that could make a constitutional difference.

As is customary in these cases, the dispute focuses on two questions: does it make a constitutional difference that the crime was murder, and is there a consensus across the nation that life-without-parole should not be imposed on a minor, regardless of the severity of the crime.   The first goes to the issue of degrees of moral accountability, and the scientific evidence that may exist on that point, and the second goes to degrees of policy agreement, among prosecutors, juries, and legislators.  But beyond those more-or-less objective calculations, a critical factor may simply be the judicial value judgment to be made about what would be constitutionally acceptable.  For that, hard evidence may not be decisive.

The facts in these two cases are typically tragic: youths who lived in violent homes, suffering from low self-esteem, moral neglect and worse, who then turn a criminal opportunity — maybe clumsily planned — into a homicide.

Evan James Miller grew up in a poverty-stricken family in rural north-central Alabama, with a father so physically abusive that the boy tried six times to commit suicide — the first time when he was five years old.  Beginning at age 8, he was treated from time to time for mental health problems.  He and his siblings were removed from their home and put in foster care, when Evan was ten.  After returning home, he became an active drug abuser.

In the summer of 2003, when he was 14, his family was living in the Country Life Trailer Court in what is known locally as the Five Points community, near the small town of Speake, Ala.   Cole Cannon, 52, was a neighbor in the trailer park, and on the night of July 15, in a drunken state, he came to the Miller trailer looking for food.  While he ate a plate of spaghetti, Evan and a visiting friend, 16-year-old Colby Smith, decided not to go to bed, but to go to Cannon’s trailer.  They found a collection of baseball cards, and decided to sell them to get some money.   Later on in the evening, Cannon, along with the boys, returned to the trailer.  After drinking whiskey and smoking marijuana, a fight broke out, and Evan began hitting Cannon with a baseball bat, inflicting a serious head wound and breaking several ribs.

The boys took about $300 from Cannon’s wallet, and split it.  They tried to clean up the blood around the trailer, and then decided to burn it.  Thinking that the fire could be put out after they left, they turned on a faucet in a stopped-up sink and left.  The fire burned on, and Cannon, severely enough injured that he could not get up from the floor, died in the fire, apparently of smoke inhalation.   Evan was charged with two counts of murder, one count during an arson, and one count during a robbery.  Colby made a deal to testify against Evan.  Evan was tried as an adult, convicted of the charge of murder during an arson, and was given a mandatory prison sentence of life without parole.  The defense lawyer failed to persuade the judge that the sentence was invalid under the Eighth Amendment.  The Alabama Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence.

In the Arkansas case, the youth is Kuntrell Jackson, of Blytheville.  He grew up in housing projects there, the scenes of drug abuse and other crimes, and had a very troubled youth without his father and with an abusive father figure in his mother’s boyfriend.  His mother and a brother were sent to prison.  Kuntrell was often in trouble with the police, for shoplifting, auto theft and other crimes, and had served time in a juvenile detention center as a serious offender.

On November 18, 1999, 14 days after his 14th birthday, he and two older youths, Derrick Shields and Travis Booker, decided to rob a local video store, Movie Magic.  The two other boys, older than Kuntrell, went in first.  He would later say that his role was to be the lookout, but, he too, entered the store.  The boys demanded money from the store clerk, Laurie Troup.  She refused, and said she was going to call the police, so one of the boys who had brought a shotgun shot her in the face, killing her.  Kuntrell would later claim that Shields had been the shooter.  The three fled the scene without taking any money.

Arrested months later, the boys admitted the crime.  Kuntrell sought to be tried in juvenile court, but that was refused mainly because of his prior criminal record.  He was convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery, and sentenced to a mandatory life-without-parole term.  Later, in 2008, after the Supreme Court had decided Roper v. Simmons, ruling out the death penalty for minors who committed murder as minors, Kuntrell’s lawyers began a constitutional challenge to his sentence.  The state Supreme Court upheld the sentence, concluding that the Supreme Court’s more recent decision in Graham v. Florida had drawn a clear constitutional line between homicide and non-homicide crimes for purposes of a life-without-parole sentence for a minor.

Petitions for Certiorari

Represented by the same lawyers, from the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., the two youths took their cases on to the Supreme Court.   Both raised two of the same issues: whether life-without-parole for a 14-year-old convicted of homicide violated the Eighth Amendment because such a sentence is so rare that there is a national consensus against it, and whether such a sentence also was invalid when imposed under a system that barred any consideration of the offender’s young age.  In addition, the Jackson petition added a question about the validity of such a sentence for a 14-year-old who did not personally kill the homicide victim, engaged in no violence himself, and did not intend or expect anyone to be killed.

The petitions focused heavily upon the rarity argument.  Across the nation, only 73 youths, they argued, were now under such a sentence imposed for crimes committed at age 14 or younger.  And, while 18 states did allow such sentences under existing laws, in ten of those states only one or two had ever actually received that sentence.  Since 1990, according to the petitions, 3,632 youths who were 14 or younger were arrested for homicides, but only a fraction of those actually received a sentence of life-without-parole.

Relying upon the findings of immaturity that had led the Supreme Court toward its rulings in the Roper and Graham cases, the petitions asserted that sending a young offender to prison for the remainder of his life could not be justified, especially when a state barred the judge from even considering those characteristics during sentencing.

Alabama officials urged the Court not to hear the dispute, arguing, among other points, that the crime Miller had committed “was as grisly as they come.”  But, the response added, if the Court were interested in the sentencing issue, “it should probably do so in a context like this one — where the extreme facts of the defendant’s crime mean that he has no colorable argument that his sentence is unconstitutional absent a categorical rule forbidding this level of punishment for all offenders of his age.”  Even so, the Court should not take on the question, the state contended, since the state court got the result right, and, in any event, the Supreme Court decision in Graham was sufficiently recent that no consensus could have developed on whether the punishment of life-without-parole was valid for the crime of murder.  In addition, the response said, there is no split of authority among the lower courts, with none ruling against this sentence in this context.  Since the sentence was not one imposing death, there is no need for an early ruling, the state added.

State officials for Arkansas urged the Court not to hear Jackson’s case, arguing that the state has a working system for juvenile offenders, giving them a chance to demonstrate that their youth provides a reason for them not to be tried as adults — a system, it noted, that Jackson himself had used to try to head off a trial in adult court.   His criminal history, the state noted, had worked against him in the juvenile justice system, but now he was attempting to persuade the Supreme Court to ignore that history and lay down a categorical rule that he could not be sentenced to life-without-parole.    The Graham precedent on which Jackson was relying, the state asserted, was emphatic in noting that murder is a different crime than the one at issue in that case — a non-homicide offense.   That filing, too, argued that the Graham decision was too recent to justify moving on to the next issue in juvenile sentencing.

Briefs on the Merits

Attorneys for Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson filed separate briefs, but urged the Court to read the Jackson brief first, as it laid out the constitutional arguments more fully.   The two briefs, the counsel said, were drafted to avoid overlap as much as possible.  The merits brief for Miller outlined fully his personal history, but the Jackson brief passed over his background with only a brief summary, using more of the space available for constitutional and scientific argument.

The Jackson brief urged the Court to focus primarily upon the lack of maturity in adolescence, arguing that both Roper and Graham had clearly identified the “numerous features” that make “teen offenders less culpable than adults.” They are “given to impulsive, heedless, sensation-seeking behavior and excessive peer pressure,” they lack “mature behavior controls,” they are “shaped by environments they did not choose and cannot change or escape,” and their youthful characters are “transitory” while their adult characters are “unpredictable.”

The obvious strategy was to steer the Court away from the “murder is different” argument on which the states could be expected to rely.  “No pragmatic difficulty — including the doctrinal problem of drawing an age line — warrants abandoning all Graham‘s logic in murder cases,” it argued.   The constitutional logic of Graham and, before it, Roper, should be controlling again, the brief asserted.  Going over those two precedents point by point, the Jackson brief sought to stress their scientific foundations and then their recounting of how rare it is to impose a truly severe sentence on an undeveloped youth.   That brief, however, also sought to rely on the Supreme Court’s most recent decision involving juvenile crime, the ruling last Term in J.D.B. v. North Carolina, finding that adolescents should ordinarily be given warnings about their rights when they are confronted about their criminal behavior — a decision that put heavy stress upon the conclusion that children are “not miniature adults,” relying heavily upon scientific studies about how youths are different.

The Jackson brief, seeking to bring in evidence to support the challenge to life-without-parole for younger teens, argued that “children of 13 and 14 are especially vulnerable” to the frailties that prior rulings had found to bear upon their culpability for their crimes.  Minors of that age, the brief contended, do not do even as much planning about their lives as older teens do, and thus would not regard the possibility of a life-without-parole sentence as a deterrent to their crimes.

On the rarity of such a sentence for young teens, the brief said that punishment to that degree is theoretically possible in 26 states, and yet there are now only about 79 persons across the country who are serving such a sentence for crimes committed at age 13 or 14.

The state of Alabama’s merits brief in the Miller case sought to take the Court on a wide-ranging journey through the modern history of criminal justice trends, showing that a rise in juvenile crime has been a key factor in leading states to do away with early release programs like parole in order to have more certainty in sentencing, and in leading states to make it easier to transfer youths from juvenile courts into adult courts, to make sure that younger criminals are held accountable.  These are the trends the state argued count for the most in judging where consensus lies on juvenile sentencing.

But, thematically, the Alabama brief sought to portray Evan Miller’s crime among the worst that could be imagined.  Indeed, the opening page, before restating the questions the Court had agreed to review to make them less sympathetic to Miller, started with a blunt recitation of the facts of his crime.   The introductory section of the brief then offered some sympathy for the difficulty the Court would face in the part it would play in deciding “what society should do with teenagers who commit the worst forms of murder….Choosing a response that best respects our Nation’s values is among the most difficult decision any government must make.”

Still, it went on, American governments have made the choice.  Most legislatures, it argued, have not just made life-without-parole sentences a theoretical possibility; they have made it mandatory even for 14-year-olds who get tried as adults for “aggravated murders.”  If there are comparatively few young teens serving such sentences, the brief said, it is because fewer youths of that age are committing such crimes, and prosecutors go for the more severe punishment when there is such a case.

While Roper and Graham drew “fundamental lines that were supported by national consensus and widely shared moral principles,” there is no similar consensus and no compelling arguments that life-without-parole violates prevailing values for those who commit crimes like Miller’s, according to the brief.

In Alabama, the state asserted, Miller had an opportunity to have his youthful age taken into account, and it was — in state courts’ following the Roper decision in not imposing a death sentence and in judging whether a life-without-parole sentence is excessive given the heinous nature of the murder at issue.   The state also sought to meet head-on Miller’s claim that such a sentence is excessive for one so young, arguing in response that, while the Supreme Court has chosen 18 as the dividing line against the death penalty for murder and life-without-parole for non-homicide crimes, there is no reason to draw a dividing line between those who are 13 or 14 and older teens not yet 18 years of age when life terms are involved.

The Arkansas brief in the Jackson case interpreted the Court’s decision in Roper and Graham as actually recognizing that, compared to other youths who commit crimes, those who commit murders “are the most culpable and may receive the penultimate punishment of life without parole.”  That view, it went on, is shared widely among governments at the state and federal levels.  Moreover, the brief added, the number of actual life-without-parole sentences imposed on younger teens who commit murder is “exponentially greater” than those for non-homicide crimes that the Supreme Court had cited in Graham as very rare.

Neither of the Court’s earlier rulings, the state brief asserted, found that the culpability of juvenile offenders was the same no matter how grave the crime committed.  Both, it argued, were crime-specific, so Jackson cannot show that a categorical rule has emerged from those precedents for any crime whatsoever that is committed by a young criminal.

Jackson’s crime,  Arkansas’s lawyers contended, was no less serious for sentencing purposes merely because he did not pull the trigger that killed the video store clerk.  If he had been an adult, the role he played in such an “aggravated robbery” would have made him eligible for the death penalty, the brief noted.

As in the Court’s two most recent rulings on juvenile sentencing, these new cases have drawn a substantial file of amici briefs from organizations — ranging from the American Psychological Association to the Juvenile Law Center — seeking to reinforce the Court’s prior conclusions that the immaturity of youth is of fundamental importance in the constitutional equation over culpability and punishment.  One of those briefs, nominally supporting neither side, argued that the Court knows, as well as parents do, that “the adolescent’s mind works differently from ours….Scientific evidence has continued to shed more light on how and why adolescent behavior differs from adult behavior.”

On the other side, supporting the states, are 19 states and the Territory of Guam, emphasizing the importance of the Court recognizing the sovereign prerogatives of the states to run their own criminal justice systems.    Also on that side are the National District Attorneys Association, plus a group named the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers.


Perhaps the single most important fact about the Court and its view about the immaturity of youths who commit crimes is that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy has consistently been in the majority in recent years as the Court moved from one such case to the next, even while the Court was deeply split in the process.  Kennedy wrote both the Roper and Graham opinions, and joined in Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s opinion last Term in J.D.B., establishing the view that police would be well advised to warn youths they are questioning about their rights.   Each of those rulings contributed to the impression that the Court has taken the science seriously when it suggests that children are not just little adults, and the criminal justice system must keep that difference fundamentally in mind.

The key question, then, in the Miller and Jackson cases, may well be whether the states will be able to convince Kennedy that the most important consideration now is not the limitations of youth but the gravity of the crime of murder.  Both Alabama and Arkansas officials have made a studied effort to get the Court to focus on the horrors of the particular crimes, and to accept that it is simply a matter of basic proportionality to make the perpetrators of those crimes pay more dearly.    This would seem to require Kennedy, and others in the recent majorities, to turn more to the moral assessment that legislators have made than to the science of the adolescent mind.

But, if the two states and their amici were able to convince those Justices to make that switch, are those members of the Court also willing to look past the fact — established in both of these cases — that the sentencing judges had no discretion whatsoever to weigh the age of the offender in the proportionality calculus?   It is one thing to argue that murder is the worst kind of crime morally, and quite another to suggest that the nature of the offender does not matter.

When the Court turns in these cases to the dueling arguments over whether life-without-parole sentences are, indeed, a rarity for young teens, the statistical data and how it is interpreted seem to run both ways.  Such sentences don’t happen often, but they could if there were a rise in the incidence of adolescent killing.  It appears to be more of an option than life-without-parole sentences were for youths who committed non-homicide crimes, a factor in the Graham ruling.

If there is one facet of these cases that would seem to work on the side of the states, it is that the Court might have real difficulty fashioning a rule for 13- and 14-year-olds, insulating them from such unending sentences, while failing to do the same for 15- and 16-year-olds.  It is unclear whether the science draws such a distinction.  To try to win a reprieve from a life sentence for their clients, the attorneys for Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson may well have taken a risk by seeming to be pressing for a rule good only for “young teens.”














Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Argument preview: Youthful crimes, life sentences, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 12, 2012, 10:12 PM),