The young man at the center of the Supreme Court’s landmark Graham v Florida ruling on juvenile lifers is still behind bars. But former inmates from around the country tell Terrence Graham the court’s 2010 ban on sentencing juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses to life without parole saved their lives.
Apparently, America is losing its stomach for state-imposed death—if prompted by the injection of lethal drugs into the body of the condemned. However, if death is the result of a long, lonely, pointless life behind bars, America is still on board. Many opposed to the death penalty are celebrating what appears to be the beginning of the end of capital punishment. However, there is another kind of death penalty thriving in America: Life in prison without the possibility of parole— a more subtle, yet real, sentence of death. There are about 3,000 inmates on death rows around the U.S. According to the Sentencing Project, more than 49,000 men and women are serving life without parole.
Two full years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in Miller v. Alabama, striking down all state statutes that impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors. And still, 48 Colorado inmates convicted of first-degree felonies as minors in the adult court system are caught in a legal purgatory, bookended by the years 1991 and 2006 and spanning the existence of a law that gave judges no discretion in their sentences. On October 6, the High Court refused to hear an appeal to a February Nebraska Supreme Court ruling that made Miller retroactive, and ordered new sentences for three men with life sentences for crimes committed when they were younger than 18. Nebraska is one of eight states, joined by Wyoming this month, that have done the same. In stark contrast, four other state supreme courts have left past life-without-parole sentences intact.
One in nine U.S. prisoners is serving a life sentence, according to a new report from the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group. About 160,000 prisoners are currently serving life sentences, according to the report; four times as many as there were 30 years ago. The nationwide population of prisoners service serving life without parole is currently about 49,000, a 22% increase since 2008. California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania account for more than half the national population of inmates serving life sentences, according to the report. Nearly half of those serving life sentences are African-American and one in six are Latino.
On July 20, 2012, James Holmes entered a packed movie theatre in Aurora, CO during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Fully armed, Holmes arbitrarily fired at the crowd. When he was done, 12 people were dead and 58 were injured. The police arrested Holmes on the scene, still armed and dressed in his Joker costume. Thus, the fact Holmes committed the shootings isn’t seriously in doubt.
A New York University law professor who persuaded the Supreme Court to extend its ban on mandatory sentences of life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles to young people convicted of murder—and thereby dramatically transformed the landscape of juvenile justice—is The Crime Report's choice for Criminal Justice Person of the Year in 2012. Bryan Stevenson, 53, founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, has devoted his legal career to securing fair treatment for some of the most unsympathetic offenders in the U.S. criminal justice system. When he took the case of Evan Miller, a 14-year-old Alabaman convicted of murder for his part in setting a 2003 trailer fire that led to the death of Cole Cannon—a neighbor of Miller's—few legal experts gave him a chance of success. The boy, along with another young accomplice, had robbed and beaten Cannon before setting the trailer fire that killed him. Stevenson argued that the mandatory sentencing of Miller to life in prison without the possibility of parole—even for murder—violated Eighth Amendment prohibitions against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The fate of two Florida teens convicted of a 2011 murder hangs on opposing interpretations of the Court’s ban on life without parole for juvenile offenders. Read the story by Vishal Persaud, a reporter for Ocala.com, and a 2012 John Jay/Tow Foundation Fellow in juvenile justice reporting HERE. For earlier stories, check out his Storify post, linked HERE and embedded below. [View the story “The Seath Jackson murder ” on Storify]