Should Teen Murderers Receive Life Without Parole?

Minors are capable of horrific acts, but in a pair of upcoming cases, the Supreme Court will decide if they are beyond help.

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Seven of the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court are parents (ranging from Justice Antonin Scalia, who has nine children, to Justice Clarence Thomas, who has one). Most of the eight are even old enough (or lucky enough) to be grandparents. So when the Court sits Tuesday morning to hear two vital criminal law cases about juvenile sentencing, it's not likely that any of the theories the justices will hear about the contradictions and complexities of the teenage mind will come as much of a surprise.

If this were any other Supreme Court term, if there were no litany of monumental political cases and social causes on the docket, America would be paying a great deal more attention to Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama. Together, they raise the profound question of whether the Eighth Amendment's proscription against "cruel and unusual punishment" precludes a life sentence without parole for teenagers who are 14 years old or younger when they are convicted of murder.

And together, the two cases require the justices to examine the scope of their recent ruling in Graham v. Florida, a 2010 decision in which the Court held, by a narrow margin, that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes. Should the same analysis hold where murder has been committed? Does it matter when the young teenager convicted of murder actually pulled a trigger? More fundamentally, the Court has to decide whether the nature of the crime trumps the nature of the criminal or vice versa.

At the heart of the matter are two young men, now in their 20s, who were 14 when they got into big trouble. In 2003, after a brief life of pain and misery in which he was abused by his father and tried to commit suicide six times, Evan Miller was convicted by a jury in Alabama of murdering a man named Cole Cannon. Miller beat Cannon with a baseball bat. Then, Miller and his friend, a 16-year-old named Colby Smith, set fire to Cannon's trailer home. Cannon could not escape the fire and died.

In Arkansas, meanwhile, Kuntrell Jackson didn't have it much better than Miller. Jackson's mother and brother were incarcerated. His mother's boyfriend was abusive and Jackson was frequently in trouble with the law. In 1999, just two weeks after he turned 14, he participated in a robbery of a video store. When the clerk, Laurie Troup, refused to hand over any money, one of Jackson's accomplices -- an older teenager -- shot her to death. Both Jackson and Miller were given life sentences without the possibility of parole.

To the folks at the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising legal questions that need raising, clients Jackson and Miller represent a small class of criminal defendants that is different from all the rest. To the EJI, "life sentences without parole" for young teenagers, even those accused of the most heinous crimes, are actually "sentences of death in prison," a punishment, they argue, that is both cruel and unusual in modern American jurisprudence. In their brief in Miller, the EJI argues:

As a class, children 14 and younger are inherently characterized by internal attributes and external circumstances which preclude a finding of the degree of culpability that would make their consignment to life-long incarceration with no hope of release constitutionally permissible under Eighth Amendment excessiveness analysis. This is no less true in murder cases than in other cases of violent crimes by young teens.

To a non-legal audience, EJI offers a different version of the same theme:

Kids too young to drive a car or go to a scary movie by themselves are sentenced to imprisonment until they die, without absolutely no change of parole or release. In many states, 13- and 14-year-olds are subjected to the harshest possible prison sentence despite widespread acknowledgement by experts, parents, teachers, doctors, and courts that children tend to be incapable of making mature choices, that they are vulnerable to negative influences and peer pressure, and that they are powerless to protect themselves from dysfunctional and dangerous home environments.

The idea here is to convince the Court that there is no legitimate legal reason for distinguish between murder crimes and non-murder crimes when it comes to maximum sentences for young teens. The Court, EJI argues, should therefore extend its precedent in Graham and its majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy (who has three adult children). Indeed, it will almost certainly be Justice Kennedy who decides these cases and his recent views on this matter ought to give some hope to Miller, Jackson, and to the other 70 or so people who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed at 14 or younger.

Ah, Justice Kennedy. These days, is it ever not all about Justice Kennedy? In Roper v. Simmons, decided in 2005, it was Justice Kennedy who cast the deciding vote to outlaw the death penalty for juvenile offenders; that is, young men or women who committed murder before they turned 18. Even Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in one of her last big cases before retirement, dissented. But, for the Court, Justice Kennedy wrote that the "character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult. The personality traits of juveniles are more transitory, less fixed." Justice Kennedy then wrote that such differences,

render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders. The susceptibility of juveniles to immature and irresponsible behavior means "their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult." Their own vulnerability and comparative lack of control over their immediate surroundings mean juveniles have a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for failing to escape negative influences in their whole environment. 

The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed.

And then, five years later, came Graham. There, the young man in trouble had not been convicted of murdering anyone. Here's how National Public Radio's grand dame, Supreme Court Correspondent Nina Totenberg, told the story:

Terrance Graham was 16 when he pleaded guilty to attempted robbery of a restaurant in which one of his accomplices hit the restaurant manager over the head with a steel pipe. Graham served one year in jail, then was released on probation. Six months later he was arrested fleeing the scene of an armed home invasion robbery. The judge revoked his probation, but rejected the four-year prison sentence recommended by the Department of Corrections and instead sentenced Graham, by then 17, to life in prison without parole. "If I can't do anything to help you," said the judge, "then I have to . . . protect the community from your actions."

Being judged irredeemable at age 17 was too much for Justice Kennedy. In Graham, he wrote: "A life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity. Incapacitation cannot override all other considerations, lest the Eighth Amendment's rule against disproportionate sentences be a nullity." The dissenters emphasized the "nonhomicidal" nature Graham's offenses. So, too, did Justice Kennedy. Was he just being coy? Or was he, in fact, sending a signal, enough is enough, to folks like those at EJI. One way or another, Miller and Jackson will answer that question. 

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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