Case preview: Court docket to think about life sentences for juveniles – once more

In overnight orders, justices allow federal execution to proceed

The 2012 Supreme Court ruled in the Miller v. Alabama case that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for defendants under the age of 18 at the time they committed their crimes. Four years later, the Montgomery v Louisiana Court clarified that Miller’s prohibition on mandatory life imprisonment applies retrospectively to convictions that were final before Miller’s decision. According to Miller and Montgomery, state courts can sentence individual juveniles to life without parole, as long as the sentence is not a compulsory sentence under state law. On Tuesday, judges will hear a hearing on a case asking them to decide what their decisions in Miller and Montgomery require the states to do before passing that verdict. A Mississippi man claims that the convict must determine that the juvenile is not rehabilitated, while the state replies that it is sufficient for the convict to consider the juvenile’s youth.

The question comes in court in the case of Brett Jones, who was 15 years old in 2004 when he stabbed his grandfather to death during an argument over Jones’ girlfriend. Jones was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

After the Miller Supreme Court ruling, but before its Montgomery ruling, the Mississippi Supreme Court sent Jones’ case back to court for retrial in the light of Miller. The state again pleaded for life without parole, and the court agreed. The state courts upheld this decision.

Jones appealed to the US Supreme Court in March 2019, but the judges put his case on hold while looking at a similar issue in the case of Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the so-called “DC snipers”. The judges dismissed Malvo’s case on February 26 after Virginia, where Malvo is in jail, passed a new law giving youth sentenced to life imprisonment to probation after 26 years. The court then agreed to take Jones’ case several weeks later.

Jones, now in his thirties, argued in his brief on the matter that his case was “easy to solve” under Miller and Montgomery, which jointly stated that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment made life without parole Prohibited for juveniles convicted of murder unless their crimes indicate that there is no hope of rehabilitation.

The Miller court decision, Jones said, was the result of two different lines of fall. The first line established categorical prohibitions on punishment for the theory that punishment is inappropriate for a particular group of defendants – for example, the prohibition of the death penalty for juvenile offenders and for offenses other than murder. A second set of cases requires defendants facing severe penalties to have individual criminal proceedings. Jones concluded that the courts must specifically determine whether a juvenile defendant convicted of murder is, as the Montgomery court stated, “one of the rarest juvenile offenders … whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” States have some leeway in making decisions, Jones admitted, but stressed that they still have to meet them.

In Jones’ case, the state courts “refused to make this crucial decision.” At his second hearing, Jones stressed, he had “presented substantial evidence” that he could be rehabilitated. For example, one proofreader testified that Jones was a “good kid” who “got on with everyone” and deserved his GED. But the courts did not take this claim into account, and it is not enough to just consider his youth, just as it is not enough to talk about a person’s mental health or mental disability.

Jones told judges to at least send the case back to the Mississippi state courts to see if Jones is “the rare, permanently incorrigible juvenile murderer who may be sentenced to life without parole.” But because the only conclusion in this case is that Jones became “a dedicated worker and model inmate” capable of rehabilitation, and the state has not even tried to argue otherwise, Jones continued, would be the more appropriate path for that Supreme Court ruling Jones not eligible for life imprisonment without parole.

In its note of merit, the state denied that Miller and Montgomery established anything like the rule that Jones proposed. In these cases, the state said, the convicts had absolutely no discretion: both defendants had been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole under a compulsory system. So the state alleged that while Miller imposed mandatory sentences without parole, that did not suggest that discretionary sentences without parole were unconstitutional.

With Miller not establishing a rule for discretionary life sentences without parole, Montgomery cannot help Jones as the Supreme Court does not announce new rules in cases where direct review has already been completed. In fact, according to the state, Henry Montgomery never asked the Supreme Court to address Miller – the only question was whether Miller’s finding that compulsory unparalleled convictions for juveniles is unconstitutional retrospectively applies to cases where direct remedies are already in place were final.

The eighth amendment, the state wrote, does not require a determination that a juvenile is not rehabilitated before being sentenced to life without parole. The eighth amendment, the state said, requires that a convicted person “consider the extenuating circumstances of the youth before sentencing a youth to life without parole”. Under the rule proposed by Jones, the state complained, the convict would have to use “magic words” or argue about whether the convict actually found that the accused was not rehabilitated. Such a requirement, the state argued, “would be an extraordinary burden on states – while this tribunal assured states in Montgomery that retrospective implementation of the Miller Rule would not be an onerous burden.”

The Mississippi Supreme Court has ordered criminal courts to consider factors such as the juvenile’s immaturity, failure to assess risks and consequences, the family and domestic environment, the defendant’s role in the murder, and the possibility of rehabilitation. On the re-conviction, the court gave Jones an opportunity to present evidence and the judge considered “age and age factors” – exactly what the constitution requires.

A decision in this case is expected sometime next year.

This post was originally published on Howe on the Court.

Posted in Jones v. Mississippi, Featured, Merits Cases

Recommended citation:
Amy Howe, preview case: Court is considering life sentences for teenagers – again
SCOTUSblog (November 2, 2020, 2:15 p.m.),