Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether a 2012 decision (Miller v. Alabama) – which struck down state laws imposing a mandatory and automatic life sentence without parole on juvenile convicted of homicide – should apply retroactively. At the time, the decision was meant to apply prospectively, and many states changed their laws accordingly.
But a case for retroactive application, brought by Henry Montgomery, a 70-year-old inmate of Angola, made its way to the court and was argued in mid-October. Montgomery reportedly committed the murder when he was 17.
Montgomery’s lawyers brought common sense to the debate. They argued that unlike juveniles sentenced today, he had no chance (in the early 1960s) to show that there were mitigating circumstances justifying a sentence shorter than life without parole. In fact, the state could only impose a mandatory life term, whereas today a defendant can obtain a significantly shorter sentence.
Change in the law
Because the 2012 decision was such a gargantuan change in the law, it ought to be applied retroactively, Montgomery’s lawyers said. Should the court decide to adopt such a course (a decision that may occur later in its current term) some 2,100 people serving life terms nationwide could find themselves eligible for parole hearings or reduced sentences.
Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, representing the federal government, claimed that the court’s 2012 decision ought to be retroactive because the ruling went “far beyond” mere procedural changes and required states to adopt new sentencing options that included penalties less severe than life without parole.
Dreeben argued that the Supreme Court itself – in striking down mandatory life without parole for juvenile killers three years ago – found the penalty was often disproportionate and that the sentence was not consistent with “the mitigating characteristics of youth” the court has repeatedly recognized over the years.
Several states have been applying the law retroactively
In response to a question from one of the justices, Dreeben said that since the 2012 decision, 10 states (Louisiana not being one of them) have provided either sentencing hearings or parole hearings for juvenile killers sentenced to life without parole prior to 2012. The defendants in those states have received sentences that are “significantly shorter than life,” he said.
Kyle Duncan, representing the state louisiana dwi lawyer, argued against retroactivity. To require sentencing hearings would wrongly “distort” the justice system because witnesses who could testify about the juvenile and his crime are often dead and important records no longer are available.
But there’s no “distortion” of the system in the case of a simple parole hearing, which often does not involve debate over the facts of the case, Justice Anthony Kennedy interjected.
Justice Elena Kagan, who authored the 2012 decision, noted that it requires a range of penalties, upper and lower, for juveniles convicted of murder. She suggested that providing that range, in place of a mandatory life term, is the kind of major change in sentencing structure that would make the court’s 2012 decision retroactive, according to the NPR report.
What is unconstitutional now was unconstitutional years ago
It remains to be seen whether a majority of the court agrees with that assessment. To me, it’s common sense to apply the law retroactively, especially when you consider the weight of the 2012 court decision. If a life sentence without parole was unconstitutional / cruel and unusual punishment now, then it was the same decades ago.
The “circumstances of youth” is an important element here; the decision-making skills of teenagers (and those who are younger) are obviously not on the same level as those commonly held by adults.
When the court decides the issue, I will post an update on Mr. Montgomery’s case.
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