The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision banning mandatory life without parole for juvenile criminals gave inmates like Christine Lockheart a glimmer of hope.
In response to the Court's ruling, the Iowa Court of Appeals earlier this month overturned Lockheart's mandatory life sentence for a murder committed when she was 17 and ordered a judge to hold a new sentencing hearing.
But less than a week later, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad commuted the sentences of all state prisoners serving mandatory life terms for crimes committed as juveniles, and instead gave them life with the possibility of parole after 60 years.
Lockheart's lawyer says he plans to challenge Branstad's order in court, arguing that it violates the Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama. That ruling said that sentencing judges should consider the individual circumstances of crimes committed by juveniles, including “how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”
Lockheart's case is among the first of what criminal justice experts say will be numerous and lengthy legal battles as courts and state legislatures across the country determine how to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling—and what to do with the estimated more than 2,000 prisoners currently serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.
“This is very clean at the wholesale level and very messy at the retail level,” said Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St.Thomas Law School, in Saint Paul, MN. “It's very clear from 10,000 feet that children are different.”
Osler, who specializes in sentencing law, added: “But with these 2,000 cases, it's going to be pretty messy with a lot of different outcomes.”
Though the Court barred mandatory life sentences for juveniles, experts said it left unanswered a host of legal issues that could impact who is eligible for a new sentence and what rights they have.
It remains unclear whether the Court's ruling is retroactive, whether prisoners who petition for a new sentence are entitled to a lawyer, and what standards should be used in handing down sentences for juveniles.
“I expect this will be bounced back up to the Supreme Court multiple times because all those questions have to be answered,” said Frank Bowman, a professor at the University of Missouri and a former federal prosecutor and special counsel to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. “We will be litigating this for years.”
Twenty-eight states and the federal government mandate life without parole for some juveniles convicted of murder, according to briefs filed before the Supreme Court. At least one state, Alabama, asserts that the ruling is not retroactive and does not apply to most of the state's current inmates, said John Neiman, Alabama's Solicitor General, who presented his state's arguments in Miller v Alabama before the Court, in an interview with The Crime Report.
Other state prosecutor's offices are still considering the issue, which is sure to be contested in court.
Public interest attorneys in several states, including Arkansas and Florida, are just beginning an effort to find all the inmates who may be eligible for a new sentence and assign them lawyers.
Petitions for Resentencing
Prisoners in several states, including Iowa and Pennsylvania, have already filed petitions for resentencing. The two cases heard by Supreme Court— Kuntrell Jackson in Arkansas, and Evan Miller in Alabama—also were sent back to the state courts for resentencing.
But, in some states, there may be little courts can do until the legislature acts.
Many state statutes do not provide judges with a clear alternative sentence if mandatory life without parole is no longer available, making it unclear what sentences judges are legally able to impose,according to Marsha Levick, a co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
Other states that have done away with parole also may have to revise their laws, Osler said.
Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, which is advising states on how to comply with the decision, said legislators in all 28 states will consider alternative sentencing laws.
Resentencing could also involve lengthy reinvestigations of crimes, some of which are decades old, and the psychological and family histories of criminals.
Tyrone Jones, who was 16 in 1973 when he was arrested for the murder of Henry Harrison in Philadelphia, is among the first prisoners to petition for a new sentencing hearing. Jones, who also claims he is innocent, was given a mandatory life sentence in 1975; he has been in prison for 37 years, his entire adult life.
In court papers filed in Philadelphia earlier this month, Jones's lawyer asked for a new sentencing hearing and for access to prosecution records regarding Jones's level of culpability and participation in the murder.
Jones's behavior when he was 16 and his subsequent prison record could impact his sentence, said his attorney, Hayes Hunt. Jones initially confessed to shooting an unidentified boy while with a friend, Michael Long. But Jones was arrested with a gun that did not match the murder weapon, according to court documents filed by his lawyers.
The charges against Long were dropped; and Long has since said Jones was not involved in the murder, according to the documents.
“We have this forgotten soul who's been in prison for decades,” Hunt said. “I have to reconstruct this man's history and try to figure out who he was the day he was arrested in 1973 as a 16 year old.”
A spokeswoman for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office declined to comment on Jones's case, but said that resentencing should be available only for cases where the issue was raised on direct appeal, meaning it would not apply to the majority of the state's inmates.
The Supreme Court did not bar all life without parole sentences for juveniles. Rather, it said that judges must take into account the individual circumstances of each case, and consider that children are less responsible for their actions and more capable of reform.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the Court, said life without parole should be “uncommon.”
“We say very glibly that kids are different, but the Court has gotten that message, and conveyed that message, loud and clear,” said Levick of the Juvenile Justice Law Center. “I hope courts will take that language the way it's meant: kids should not be treated as if they were adults, because they're not.”
Still, prosecutors and defense lawyers said they expect many current inmates will still receive a life sentence even if they get a new sentencing hearing. Many judges, lawyers said, may not want to reduce the sentence of anyone convicted of a brutal murder.
In both of the cases heard by the Supreme Court, the defendants were 14 years old when they were arrested. Kuntrell Jackson was convicted of murder for participating in a robbery of a video store in Arkansas during which an accomplice shot and killed the store clerk, Laurie Troup.
Evan Miller of Alabama and a friend robbed and killed Miller's neighbor, 52-year-old Cole Cannon. Miller repeatedly hit Cannon with a baseball bat, according to court records, at one point placing a sheet over Cannon's head and saying, “`I am God, I’ve come to take your life.'”
He and a friend later set fire to Cannon's trailer.
'He Should Never Get Out'
“He should never get out,” Candy Cheatham, Cannon's daughter, told The Crime Report. “The rest of the world should worry if someone like Evan Miller ever has a chance to get out. It would be a great injustice for him not to receive the same sentence.”
But the Supreme Court suggested that Miller's background may warrant a lighter sentence.
“If ever a pathological background might have contributed to a 14-year-old's commission of a crime, it is here,” the Court wrote. “Miller's stepfather abused him; his alcoholic and drug-addicted mother neglected him; he had been in and out of foster care as a result; and he had tried to kill himself four times, the first when he should have been in kindergarten.”
Though the Court's decision was limited, it reflects a broader change in how the legal system deals with underage criminals.
In a series of cases beginning in 2005, the Supreme Court has barred the death penalty for juveniles, banned life in prison for juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide, and now banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles.
“It is beginning to emerge that children have a constitutional right to be treated differently,” said Stephen Harper, a public defender in Miami.
The decision also opens up the possibility that the Court may consider cases challenging other types of mandatory minimum sentences and non-mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, lawyers said.
“We're just at the beginning of where this is going to go,” said Levick.
Scott Michels is a New York City-based lawyer and a freelance writer for The Crime Report, This story was jointly commissioned by The Crime Report and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Michels welcomes comments from readers.