Friday, May 15, 2009

Supreme Court Juvenile Life Sentencing Update

Our post last Monday about the U.S. Supreme Court's agreeing to hear the two Florida juvenile life sentence cases in determining whether life in prison is an acceptable consequence for juvenile offenders, has more information that we'd like to pass along in anticipation of the Court's consideration this Fall.

Last Monday we mentioned CNN's having said that "outside of a death-penalty context, the high court has offered little recent guidance on how to treat the youngest of underage criminal defendants, and the appellate record for rapists younger than 15 is almost non-existent." An article on was passed along mentioning that the two focal-point cases were not the first time the Supreme Court had "been confronted with the question of juveniles spending their lives in prison. Last year, the justices declined to consider an appeal of a 30-year prison sentence for a teen who was 12 when he killed his grandparents in their South Carolina home." These provided starting points for an interesting trek.

Both Graham's and Sullivan's petitions for certiorari obviously contain a wealth of case precedent in support of their views and contentions – Sullivan's more because, along with his Eighth Amendment, "cruel & unusual punishment" claim, he also postulates "review of recently evolved 8th. Amendment claims where state courts have refused to."

ScotusWiki's entries for the two cases ( Graham and Sullivan ) mentions in pertinence that "The first post-Roper case to reach the Court testing the Eighth Amendment as it applied to long sentences for youths — Pittman v. South Carolina (07-8436) — was turned aside by the Justices last year. A then 12-year-old, Christopher Frank Pittman, had been convicted of a double murder. He was given a 30-year prison sentence, without possibility of a parole. The Court turned aside that case on April 14 of last Term, apparently unready to examine a lengthy sentence when the crime victim was slain."

Pittman's appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court two years ago brought up the 8th. Amendment question of "cruel & unusual punishment" as applied to juveniles as do our current two cases. That court affirmed sentence and conviction.

In that decision, the Supreme Court of South Carolina observed with respect to the 8th. Amendment challenge, that, "the United States Supreme Court has instructed that the ‘clearest and most reliable objective evidence of contemporary values is the legislation enacted by the country’s legislatures.'" Atkins, 536 U.S. at 313 (quoting Penry v. Lynaugh, 493 U.S. 302, 331 (1989)). The court has additionally stated that the Constitution requires the court's own judgment to be brought to bear on the issue by 'asking whether there is reason to disagree with the judgment reached by the citizenry and its legislators.' Id. at 313."

"… Appellant overlooks the 'proportionality' bedrock of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, which is equally important a principle as 'evolving standards of decency.' This case involved a brutal double murder. As the United States Supreme Court stated in Atkins: 'it is a precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to [the] offense.' 536 U.S. at 311 (quoting Weems, 317 U.S. at 367). To paraphrase what the Tenth Circuit stated in Hawkins, '[a]lthough [Appellant’s] culpability may be diminished somewhat due to his age at the time of the crimes, it is arguably more than counterbalanced by the harm [Appellant] caused to his victim[s].' 200 F.3d at 1284.

"To establish that evolving standards of decency preclude his punishment, [Appellant] bears the 'heavy burden,' of showing that our culture and laws emphatically and well nigh universally reject it." Harris v. Wright, 93 F.3d 581 at 583 (citing Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361, 373 (1989)). Appellant has not made such a showing."

Harris and Stanford were pre-Johnson/Roper death-penalty cases, Harris having been convicted of aggravated first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole under Washington Revised Code §10.95.030, which carried that as a mandatory sentence. (Statute was amended now exempting those under the age of 18). Stanford was convicted of murder, sodomy, robbery, and receiving stolen property when he was 17 years old, the Kentucky Supreme Court having upheld those convictions. His case was joined by that of Heath Wilkins, a 16 ½ -year-old Missouri boy found guilty of murder, "armed criminal action," and carrying a concealed weapon in the case cited above. The Supreme Court upheld both. (The Court later denied a writ of habeas corpus in 2002, which Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg & Breyer dissented from finding the practice of executing juveniles "a relic of the past and inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society." His sentence was commuted to life in prison in 2003, which he then unsuccessfully tried to appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court in 2007, and the U.S. Supreme Court last year.)

At that point in time, and albeit with reference to the juveniles & the death penalty, the Supreme Court said, "Neither petitioner assets that his sentence constitutes one of 'those modes or acts of punishment that had been considered cruel and unusual at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted' [Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 477 (1986)]. Nor could they support such a contention… petitioners are left to argue that their punishment is contrary to the 'evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,' [Trop v. Dules, 356 U.S.86 (1958)] They are correct in asserting that this Court has 'not confined the prohibition embodied in the Eighth Amendment to 'barbarous' methods that were generally outlawed in the 18th. Century,' but instead has interpreted the Amendment 'in a flexible and dynamic manner.' [ Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976)] In determining what standards have 'evolved,' however, we have looked not to our own conceptions of decency, but to those of modern American society as a whole…. 'Eighth Amendment judgments should not be, or appear to be, merely the subjective views of individual Justices; judgment should be informed by objective factors to the maximum possible extent.' [Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977)]."

Such has been part of the history, at least, of the issue. Flash forward to more modern times… some of this may have "fallen beneath the radars" of some of us:

  • The Ohio Supreme Court, on May 6, 2008, rules that “the imposition of a mandatory adult sentence of life imprisonment for a child rape committed when the defendant was himself 15 years old, but for which he was not prosecuted for until he had passed the age of 21, did not violate the defendant’s constitutional due process rights. [ State v. Warren, 2008 Ohio 2011 (Case) (Court Summary) ]

    In its consideration of the case, the Ohio 8th. District Court of Appeals in Cuyahoga County interpreted one of the assignments of error as a “cruel & unusual punishment” claim under the Eight Amendment. That court had said, “The life sentence imposed here was mandated by statute. ‘Severe, mandatory penalties may be cruel, but they are not unusual in the constitutional sense, having been employed in various forms throughout our Nation’s history.’ [ Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991)] Consideration of mitigating factors in sentencing (including the defendant’s chronological age) is not constitutionally required except when the death penalty is imposed. [ Rice v. Cooper, (Ca. 7) 148 F3d 747 (1998)]

  • The 4th Appellate District, Div. 3, in California on April 30th. voided the life without parole sentence of a 14-year-old boy convicted in 1981 in a kidnapping in which no one was injured, saying “because petitioner is the only known offender under the age 15 across the country and around the world subjected to an LWOP sentence for a non-homi-cide, non-injury offense, we conclude his severe sentence is so freakishly rare as to constitute arbitrary and capricious punishment violating the Eight Amendment..” (In re Antonio De Jesus Nunez, case G040377)

  • California Senate Bill 399, introduced February 26, 2009, and having been amended four times now, would “authorize a prisoner who is under 18 years of age at the time of committing an offense for which the prisoner was sentenced to life without parole to submit a petition for recall & resentencing to the sentencing court, established certain criteria to be considered when a court decides whether to conduct a hearing whether to grant the petition, and require the court to make findings within 90 days of the submission of a petition & hold a hearing if the court finds that those criteria are met as specified. The bill would also be retroactive.

  • The U.S. House of Representatives has a bill introduced on May 6, 2009 short-titled the “Juvenile Justice Accountability & Improvement Act,” which would require that “each state have in effect laws & policies under which each child offender serving a life sentence receives not less than once during the first 15 years of incrarceration, and not less than once every three years of incarceration thereafter, a meaningful opportunity for parole or other form of supervised release,” and require that “the Attorney General issue guidelines & regulations to interprete and implement” (the above) not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of the bill. [ H.R 2289 ]

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