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Do Juvenile Killers Deserve Life Behind Bars?

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday in two homicide cases testing whether it is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a 14-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Evan Miller (in the white shirt) was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed when he was 14.
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Above: Evan Miller (in the white shirt) was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed when he was 14.

There are currently 79 of these juvenile killers who will die in prison. What's more, in many states, the penalty is mandatory, meaning neither judge nor jury is allowed to consider the youngster's age or background in meting out the sentence.

In cases dealing with punishment for juveniles, context is everything. In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juveniles, declaring that kids are different from adults. The court said that because of their youth, their brains are literally less developed, they are more impulsive, more subject to peer pressure and less able to see the consequences of their acts.

Two years ago, the court used the same rationale when it struck down the penalty of life without parole for nonhomicide crimes committed by juveniles. But in Tuesday's cases, the court faces the question of life without parole in homicide cases.

Kuntrell Jackson, 14, and two other kids held up a video rental store. One of the other boys shot and killed the cashier. Under Arkansas' felony-murder law, Jackson was deemed just as responsible as the gunman. He was tried as an adult for aggravated murder and, under state law, received a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Enlarge this image

Above: Kuntrell Jackson, 14, and two other kids held up a video rental store. One of the other boys shot and killed the cashier. Under Arkansas' felony-murder law, Jackson was deemed just as responsible as the gunman. He was tried as an adult for aggravated murder and, under state law, received a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

A case from Arkansas involves a teenager who was not the triggerman. Fourteen-year-old Kuntrell Jackson and two other kids held up a video rental store. One of the other boys pointed a sawed-off shotgun at the cashier, and when she threatened to call the police, shot and killed her. Under Arkansas' felony-murder law, Jackson was deemed just as responsible as the triggerman. He was tried as an adult for aggravated murder and, under state law, received a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

The other case, from Alabama, involves Evan Miller, a boy so brutalized as a child that by the time he was arrested for murder at age 14, he had tried to kill himself six times, the first time when he was 5 years old.

Miller and a 16-year-old friend went next-door to the home of a neighbor who was dealing drugs to Miller's mother. The neighbor, 52-year-old Cole Cannon, gave the boys liquor and marijuana. Miller consumed a fifth of whiskey as the boys engaged in drinking games with Cannon and planned to steal his wallet.

Eventually, a fight broke out and the boys severely beat Cannon, set fires in the trailer and fled, ignoring Cannon's pleas for help. Cannon died of smoke inhalation. The 16-year-old friend made a deal with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony, and got life with parole eligibility. Fourteen-year-old Miller got life without parole.

Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer who represents the boys in both of these cases, will make two basic arguments before the Supreme Court. The first is that a mandatory punishment of life without parole for a 14-year-old is cruel and unusual punishment because the defendant's age and background are irrelevant and cannot mitigate punishment.

"Judges can't consider it. Juries can't consider it. No one can consider it," says Stevenson.

The states counter that the juvenile's age has already been considered by taking the death penalty off the table.

"If the defendant is not going to get the death penalty, then at the very least, the defendant ought to get life without parole" to counterbalance the harm he has inflicted, says Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman.

But the big question before the Supreme Court on Tuesday is whether life without the possibility of parole is itself an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment when it is applied to juveniles.

Defense lawyer Stevenson notes that the American legal system treats minors as both less culpable and less responsible. Fourteen-year-olds, for instance, are not allowed to drink, to marry, to vote, to serve on juries or even to drive.

"We're not saying that juvenile offenders who commit homicide can't be punished severely," Stevenson says. "They may even end up spending the rest of their lives in prison. But it's premature, excessive and unfair to say we know this juvenile will never be rehabilitated."

Indeed, a brief filed by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators and other juvenile crime experts points to many amazing cases of rehabilitation. Among them is 16-year-old Scott Filippi, who shot his mother but after his release joined the Army and became a member of the Presidential Honor Guard.

Or there is Raphael Johnson, who shot and killed a classmate when he was 17, but after his release got bachelor's and master's degrees with honors and started a community policing program in Detroit. Or there is Lawrence Wu, a 15-year-old New York gang member who eventually became the editor-in-chief of the Columbia Law Review.

One of the most famous of those who have changed their lives is award-winning actor-producer Charles Dutton. By age 12, he had quit school and was living a life of fights and crime on the streets of Baltimore.

"I liked getting in trouble," says Dutton. "I enjoyed getting in fights. I enjoyed the challenge of battle."

By age 17, he was sentenced to prison for manslaughter. Even in prison, though, he continued his fighting ways, assaulting a guard and getting eight years added to his sentence. A decade or so later, he was on his way to "the hole" for solitary confinement when he picked up a book of plays sent to him by a girlfriend. It ended up changing his life. As he puts it, he found what he was "born to do."

"Up until that point in time, I didn't really concentrate on the life I had taken," he says. "But only at that moment of rediscovering my own humanity [could I] go back and have a very, very strong and sincere, heartfelt remorse for taking that life." Now, four decades later, he says he thinks of the man he killed every day and wonders who he would have been.

Dutton says he understands the desire to avenge a terrible crime, but "there's no sense in destroying a second life if that life is actually redeemable. If there's anyone who still has a modicum of redemption left in their life, it's a juvenile."

The states that have adopted life without parole for juvenile killers have a very different view.

"The one thing that we don't know is what the potential of the life would be that was snuffed out in the crime," says Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. "The hypothetical of who might be rehabilitated in prison is a hard one to analyze, but there have to be some circumstances under which these persons can serve life without parole."

Indeed, Alabama Solicitor General Neiman notes that 38 of the 50 states authorize life without parole for a 14-year-old convicted of murder, and the federal government authorizes it for 15-year-olds. Part of the justification for that, he observes, is the notion of retribution.

"As a moral matter, it is OK for a government to say, even if there is a possibility that someone will rehabilitate themselves, if a person commits a sufficiently egregious crime, then they just deserve a very severe sentence," Neiman says.

Defense lawyer Stevenson counters that in reality, only 18 states have imposed life without parole on a 14-year-old, and only 79 killers who are 14 or younger are currently serving life-without-parole sentences.

Arkansas Attorney General McDaniel says that even if those statistics are accurate, and he disputes them, it doesn't prove much.

"It's not because society doesn't have the moral stomach to impose those sentences," McDaniel says. "It's because, realistically, 14-year-olds don't commit a lot of murders."

Finally, the states argue that life without parole is a sufficiently severe sentence that it will deter at least some juveniles from committing murder.

Defense lawyer Stevenson dismisses that argument, echoing the sentiments of many experts who deal with violent juveniles.

"Most of my clients had never heard of life imprisonment without parole and had no capacity to appreciate what it would mean," Stevenson says. "It takes them years before they even get what it means to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, because they're just not used to thinking that far ahead."

Comments

Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | March 20, 2012 at 11:24 a.m. ― 2 years, 9 months ago

Bad behavior usually begins early in age. We've all done things we regret from the time we were children. Bullying friends and other kids in school, provoking an argument with a neighbor, the list is endless.

The example of the 14 year old holding up a store and shooting and killing the convenience store clerk is an example of more than bad behavior. That was murderous intent! To have committed that kind of act at such an early age to me seems as though they have no remorse or consideration for what that type of action would create.

The example of Evan Miller states he was abused as a child, so yes I'm sure that had something to do with it. Still his crime was serious enough that our justice system had to take into consideration how likely he would commit this type of act again.

Although our justice system needs some rework, this is going to be a tough one.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | March 20, 2012 at 2:33 p.m. ― 2 years, 9 months ago

It's a tough call.

I do think our society tends to send mixed messages about teenagers.

In some respects we coddle them as helpless and in other respects we want them held accountable as adults.

And what age is too young?

Maybe a 15 year old knows what they are doing, but does an 11 year old?

Where is the line drawn.

All rough questions.

I will say, however, that the case of Kuntrell Jackson seems unfair considering the 14 year old was not the shooter.

Yes, he was an accomplice and should be punished, but life in prison w/no possibility of parole for a 14 year old who was *with* someone who shot someone seems like it's going too far.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | March 20, 2012 at 2:38 p.m. ― 2 years, 9 months ago

By the way, it should be noted that during the GW Bush administration, the supreme court decided people under 18 could not be put to death in the US.

This decision came despite rank and file republicans supporting the death penalty for minors and the GW Bush admin petitioning the court to uphold the death penalty for minors.

Conservatives on the bench at the time like Scalia and Thomas supported allowing the death penalty for minors.

It would have put our nation in a very small group of nations that include Yemen, Iran, and North Korea.

My point is that we should be glad the debate now is whether children should be sentenced to life in prison, because if many conservatives had it their way, we would be putting children to death.

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Avatar for user 'jessicaku'

jessicaku | March 21, 2012 at 12:28 a.m. ― 2 years, 9 months ago

"If there's anyone who still has a modicum of redemption left in their life, it's a juvenile."

That is a very profound statement I'm in wholehearted agreement with. As the article mentioned, at that age, these minors are mentally less developed in every way. What lifetime imprisonment is going to do to them is just cause and perpetuate more pain and suffering. It's enough that America is already so heavy-handed with its criminal justice system towards adults, but to bring down that level of severity on underdeveloped kids who still have the time and chance to make their lives right again.... That's something very wrong. Rehabilitation does not mean bestowing undeserved mercy to some evil SOB, it means that the wrongdoer learns remorse and more importantly, is able to go back into society and be a productive member and hopefully start to make efforts to redeem him/herself for the one evil act committed in his/her youth. Not to say that this undermines the seriousness of the crime first committed, but it hardly makes sense to balance out death and suffering with more suffering and death. Take a look at Norway's system that focuses more on rehabilitation rather than retribution: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1986002,00.html

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | March 21, 2012 at 10:45 a.m. ― 2 years, 9 months ago

This is a question of responsibility. If it isn't the minor's responsibility not to become involved in situations that lead to life sentences then will someone please point to the adult that IS responsible? If we can't find that individual, then it really is the minor's responsibility to stay far enough away from these situations so as not to be caught up in them. To posit otherwise is to accept that no one is responsible for these murders, which I find to be an absurd conclusion.
If there is anything society should have a zero tolerance policy on it should be the killing of fellow citizens.

I also find it difficult to credit the assertion that youth clouds judgement to such a degree that one cannot determine that murder is wrong.

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