Monday, December 15, 2014

Supreme Court to rule on whether ban on mandatory life sentences for juveniles applies retroactively

The New York Times, the Washington Post and SCOTUS Blog report that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving the retroactivity of a ban on mandatory life sentences for juveniles. The ban came about in 2012, when the high court found these sentences for juveniles who commit murder violated the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The decision in Miller v. Alabama, penned by Justice Elena Kagan, did not ban life sentences for juveniles, but held that a court had to make individualized findings about a defendant before imposing such a sentence. In June 2012 SCOTUS Blog summarized what the majority found a court must consider, as follows:

The judge must assess the specific age of that individual, examine that youth’s childhood and life experience, weigh the degree of responsibility the youth was capable of exercising, and assess that youth’s chances to become rehabilitated.  Only if the judge then concludes that life without parole is a “proportional” penalty, given all of the factors that mitigate the youth’s guilt, can he impose such a sentence.

The question the Court will address now is whether this ban on mandatory life sentences and requirement for individualized findings applies retroactively to cases that were completed before the 2012 decision. The case before the Court involves George Toca, who was convicted of murder in 1984 for accidentally shooting his friend during a botched robbery. He was seventeen at the time. Toca was sentenced to life without possibility of parole under a Louisiana sentencing scheme that required imposition of a life sentence. The Louisiana Supreme Court denied his request for a new hearing.

According to the Washington Post, state supreme courts have been split on the interpretation of this precedent, with most finding that it is a substantive rule that must be applied retroactively, but others, like Louisiana, finding that it is merely procedural and does not require revisiting life sentences for all juveniles who had been sentenced prior to the decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear Toca's case on the issue of retroactivity, but will also decide a broader point that may make the question of retroactivity moot. According to SCOTUS Blog, the Court will also address "whether a federal question is raised at all when an inmate claims that a state post-conviction court had failed to apply a Supreme Court criminal-law decision retroactively." If the Court ruled that no federal question was raised in this type of proceeding, then they might not rule on the specific retroactivity issue in Toca's case.

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