The man at the center of the Supreme Court’s historic 2012 Miller v Alabama ruling that struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder has begun a court battle to win a reduced sentence after 14 years behind bars.
Evan Miller, now 28, was 14 when he robbed a neighbor, Cole Cannon, set his mobile home on fire, and left him for dead.
But over his time in prison, Miller has grown into an intelligent man hoping to one day help others in danger of repeating his mistakes, his sister Aubrey Miller Goldstein testified as his long-awaited resentencing hearing began yesterday in a Moulton, Alabama courtroom.
“He’s remarkably well-balanced. Intelligent. Poetic,” Goldstein said, after telling wrenching stories of growing up with drug-addicted parents, seemingly random beatings and a string of evictions from roach-ridden homes. “He’s a deep thinker. He’s reflective, contemplative — and remorseful.
“He wants good to come from this,” she added. “He wants to be able to help others, to stop it before it happens. To help troubled teens, troubled youth. He would do very well.”
The Miller case was one of two brought before the Supreme Court to challenge automatic life-without-parole sentences of juveniles convicted of murder. The second centered on Kuntrell Jackson, who was involved in a 1999 Arkansas video store robbery when he was 14 that left one person dead.
Building on an earlier Court decision in Graham v Florida that dropped life-without-parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, cited the Court’s opinion in the 2010 decision that “because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, they are less deserving of the most severe punishments,” and applied it to the more serious crime of murder.
“By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes,” Kagan wrote. “The mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. “
Miller’s court appearance is a painful reprise of events that have riven two families. Prosecutors hoping to keep Miller locked up for good have been sketching a portrait of an unrepentant, manipulative inmate unchanged by his years behind bars.
Cannon’s family members aren’t buying any talk of repentance.
“It’s as if I keep being slapped in the face with constant, unbearable grief,” Cannon’s youngest daughter, Jodie Fuller, testified Monday.
In more than two hours of testimony, Goldstein said her father, David Miller, was a truck driver who spent most of the week on the road. He would come home seething, “almost looking for something to get angry about,” and beat them with a leather belt with a heavy buckle — an accessory Goldstein said her father wore as a weapon.
The boys — younger brother Evan and older brother John—occasionally got kicked with his steel-toed boots, too.
“It could happen every day. It could happen more than once a day,” she said.
Goldstein said she has a finger that doesn’t move properly due to damage to one of her knuckles from that belt. Evan, the youngest, had a seemingly permanent welt across one buttock, “the perfect shape of a belt.”
Their father once killed a kitten that had urinated on the kitchen floor, slamming it against a wall and forcing his children to watch as it died.
Goldstein recounted these stories in a soft, even tone, struggling for composure only when she recounted the constant filth and roaches. The family left cleaning to her when she was barely out of kindergarten.
Miller sat tight-lipped during the proceedings, dressed in gray-and-white prison stripes. He grimaced occasionally as his sister testified, glancing occasionally at the spectators’ benches.
The family moved from house to house, racking up a chain of evictions across several north Alabama towns. Child welfare agencies in four counties had files on the family — documents that Miller’s lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative, which won the Supreme Court decision on his behalf, presented to the judge to buttress Goldstein’s testimony.
The cops were called several times, including once when older brother John took refuge at a neighbor’s house and the neighbor faced their father down with a shotgun to protect him, Goldstein said.
But their mother repeatedly refused to press charges, even when her husband threatened her with a gun. Goldstein recounted hiding behind a police car after calling officers to their home in that incident, only to have the officer tell her there was nothing he could do.
She was 11 at the time.
Meanwhile, she said, their mother told the children horror stories about foster care to keep them from telling the truth about what was happening at home.
The children finally were taken away when her father bruised her eye the night before Goldstein and her younger brother went to a summer camp run by child welfare authorities. They spent 17 months with a foster family – a stretch that saw the children get basics like clothes and regular meals, as well as structure and rational discipline.
“The Millers let us love them,” said Tiffani Alldredge, whose parents took in the children. “Out of all the foster siblings we ever had, they were the only ones who let us love them and loved us back.”
However, on cross-examination, Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney pointed to reports that Evan Miller once tried to choke Alldredge during a fight over a basketball game, and his foster parents noted in reports that the boy “lies so much I can’t believe him.”
Alldredge said she didn’t remember the childhood fight.
Prosecutors also introduced Miller’s prison disciplinary record, which listed infractions for jailhouse tattoos and possession of a contraband cell phone.
While her kids were in foster care, Suzi Miller left her husband. She got supervised visits with the children, and eventually got custody of them. They went to live with her in a mobile home park where Goldstein said drug use was rampant and the home was “chaos.”
Evan had flourished in foster care and didn’t want to go back. And soon, everyone in the family was drinking, smoking pot or using speed. And that put them on a collision course with Cannon, who was trying to turn around his own struggle with alcoholism, his children testified.
He had to sign his home over to their mother to keep the bank from taking it, leaving him renting a trailer in a mobile home park next to the Millers.
On the witness stand Monday, Cannon’s two daughters and son recounted how they struggled to move on since their father’s killing — particularly since the Supreme Court tossed out Miller’s original sentence nearly five years ago, they said.
“All I have heard from EJI is, ‘Evan was just a child.’ Well, so was I,” Fuller said.
Fuller, sister Candy Cheatham and brother Sandy Cannon told of homecoming pageants, weddings and birthdays at which their father was absent, grandchildren asking about the “Pawpaw Cole” they’ll never meet.
“He has a name,” Cheatham said, looking directly at Miller. “In many documents, in many statements, in many hearings, his name has not been mentioned … but his name was Cole Cannon. He was a person.”
Fuller said her father’s death sent her into a spiral of depression and substance abuse. But she recovered and became a police officer, and said Miller could have made similar choices. Instead, she said, her father’s killer hasn’t shown any remorse, “and I don’t think he ever will.”
“I truly believe with his lack of remorse that he will kill again if he’s ever released from prison,” Fuller said.
The Crime Report is pleased to publish this edited version of a story published yesterday in partnership with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers juvenile justice issues. Readers’ comments are welcome.