That hasn’t prevented some states from trying to keep juvenile LWOP sentences intact, Rovner said. After the Graham ruling on non-homicide sentences, Virginia prisoner Dennis LeBlanc, then 34 years old, asked courts to review the LWOP sentence he received after his conviction for rape when he was 16. Virginia countered that resentencing was unnecessary because it already had a mechanism to free him: the state’s geriatric-release program, for which LeBlanc would have to be at least 60 years old to qualify. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately rejected that argument and ordered him resentenced last year.
In some jurisdictions that still allow juvenile LWOP sentences, state supreme courts imposed new procedural safeguards after Miller. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court mandated in June that state courts adopt a presumption against LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders in Pennsylvania v. Batts—in other words, prosecutors must prove the sentence necessary to obtain one. “To rebut the presumption, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is incapable of rehabilitation,” Associate Justice Christine Donohue wrote for the court. A state prosecutor told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that it seemed unlikely future juvenile LWOP sentences in the state would overcome the court’s higher threshold.
Other courts have interpreted the Supreme Court’s precedents more narrowly. Missouri’s state supreme court issued three opinions on the matter this week that highlight the fissures opened up by the high court’s rulings. The first case, Carr v. Wallace, was straightforward: The court ordered a defendant resentenced because he was serving a mandatory LWOP term in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama.
The defendants in the other two cases weren’t as fortunate. In Willbanks v. Missouri, Timothy Willbanks challenged his sentences for kidnapping, robbery, and assault committed when he was 17 years old. He received 375 consecutive years in prison for charges related to the first two offenses, plus a life sentence for assault. Though he’d technically be eligible for parole years down the line, Willbanks argued this lengthy term amounted to an LWOP sentence, which would violate the Graham v. Florida ruling that barred such punishments for non-homicide crimes.
Not so, said the Missouri Supreme Court: The Graham ruling was aimed at LWOP sentences specifically, not aggregations of prison sentences that may result in a defendant living out the rest of his years behind bars. Plus, the court reasoned, he might be able to get out at age 85.
Judge Laura Denvir Stith dissented from the ruling, which she partially blamed on her colleagues’ “fear of censure” by the U.S. Supreme Court. She also challenged its central reasoning. “A sentence that results in no meaningful opportunity for release during the juvenile’s lifetime is the functional equivalent of LWOP,” she wrote. Stith also dissented on similar grounds in the third case, Missouri v. Nathan, in which the defendant had received an LWOP sentence for murder, plus additional decades in prison for non-homicide crimes.