Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Cases Challenging Juvenile Life Sentences Without Chance of Parole

Today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases challenging the constitutionality of sentencing minors convicted of murder to life in prison without a chance for parole. The two cases are Miller v. Alabama (Case No. 10-9646) and Jackson v. Hobbs (Case No. 10-9647).

SCOTUSblog has provided a comprehensive background and analysis of both cases:

The facts in these two cases are typically tragic: youths who lived in violent homes, suffering from low self-esteem, moral neglect and worse, who then turn a criminal opportunity — maybe clumsily planned — into a homicide.

Evan James Miller grew up in a poverty-stricken family in rural north-central Alabama, with a father so physically abusive that the boy tried six times to commit suicide — the first time when he was five years old. Beginning at age 8, he was treated from time to time for mental health problems. He and his siblings were removed from their home and put in foster care, when Evan was ten. After returning home, he became an active drug abuser.

In the summer of 2003, when he was 14, his family was living in the Country Life Trailer Court in what is known locally as the Five Points community, near the small town of Speake, Ala. Cole Cannon, 52, was a neighbor in the trailer park, and on the night of July 15, in a drunken state, he came to the Miller trailer looking for food. While he ate a plate of spaghetti, Evan and a visiting friend, 16-year-old Colby Smith, decided not to go to bed, but to go to Cannon’s trailer. They found a collection of baseball cards, and decided to sell them to get some money. Later on in the evening, Cannon, along with the boys, returned to the trailer. After drinking whiskey and smoking marijuana, a fight broke out, and Evan began hitting Cannon with a baseball bat, inflicting a serious head wound and breaking several ribs.

The boys took about $300 from Cannon’s wallet, and split it. They tried to clean up the blood around the trailer, and then decided to burn it. Thinking that the fire could be put out after they left, they turned on a faucet in a stopped-up sink and left. The fire burned on, and Cannon, severely enough injured that he could not get up from the floor, died in the fire, apparently of smoke inhalation. Evan was charged with two counts of murder, one count during an arson, and one count during a robbery. Colby made a deal to testify against Evan. Evan was tried as an adult, convicted of the charge of murder during an arson, and was given a mandatory prison sentence of life without parole. The defense lawyer failed to persuade the judge that the sentence was invalid under the Eighth Amendment. The Alabama Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence.

In the Arkansas case, the youth is Kuntrell Jackson, of Blytheville. He grew up in housing projects there, the scenes of drug abuse and other crimes, and had a very troubled youth without his father and with an abusive father figure in his mother’s boyfriend. His mother and a brother were sent to prison. Kuntrell was often in trouble with the police, for shoplifting, auto theft and other crimes, and had served time in a juvenile detention center as a serious offender.

On November 18, 1999, 14 days after his 14th birthday, he and two older youths, Derrick Shields and Travis Booker, decided to rob a local video store, Movie Magic. The two other boys, older than Kuntrell, went in first. He would later say that his role was to be the lookout, but, he too, entered the store. The boys demanded money from the store clerk, Laurie Troup. She refused, and said she was going to call the police, so one of the boys who had brought a shotgun shot her in the face, killing her. Kuntrell would later claim that Shields had been the shooter. The three fled the scene without taking any money.

Arrested months later, the boys admitted the crime. Kuntrell sought to be tried in juvenile court, but that was refused mainly because of his prior criminal record. He was convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery, and sentenced to a mandatory life-without-parole term. Later, in 2008, after the Supreme Court had decided Roper v. Simmons, ruling out the death penalty for minors who committed murder as minors, Kuntrell’s lawyers began a constitutional challenge to his sentence. The state Supreme Court upheld the sentence, concluding that the Supreme Court’s more recent decision in Graham v. Florida had drawn a clear constitutional line between homicide and non-homicide crimes for purposes of a life-without-parole sentence for a minor.

Transcripts in the Miller and Jackson cases were made available by the Supreme Court today. Audio is expected Friday at the Court’s website.

Argument Recaps: Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog has written a thoughtful and comprehensive recap of the ninety combined minutes of oral arguments. Another brief recap can be found at the Huffington Post.

Additional information, court filings, and media coverage are available below:

Briefs for the Petitioners:

List of Amicus briefs filed:

Media Coverage (special thanks to NJDC for compiling):

UPDATE (24 Mar 2012): Audio files of oral arguments are now online at the Supreme Court’s website: Alabama v. Miller; Jackson v. Hobbs.

Alex Hunt

About Alex Hunt

Alex Hunt is a former Yale & Irene Rosenberg Graduate Fellow at the Center for Children, Law & Policy. Alex graduated from the University of Texas in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in government. Before entering law school, he taught middle school math at YES Prep Southwest in Houston with Teach For America. In 2010, he received New Leaders' EPIC Spotlight Teacher Award, a national award for teachers with outstanding student growth. Alex graduated cum laude from the University of Houston Law Center in May 2013. During law school, Alex was Casenotes & Comments Editor for the Houston Journal of International Law, interned for both state and federal judges, and served as Vice President of the Health Law Organization (HLO). In addition, Alex has received the Irving J. Weiner Memorial Scholarship Award (for a year of outstanding work in the UH Law Center Legal Clinic), the Napoleon Beazley Defender Award (for outstanding work on behalf of children), the Ann Dinsmore Forman Memorial Child Advocacy Award, the Mont P. Hoyt Memorial Writing Award for an Outstanding Comment on a Topic in International Law, and he was a finalist for Texas Access to Justice's Law Student Pro Bono Award. Alex is currently in private family law practice with the Hunt Law Firm, P.L.L.C. in Katy, Texas.

One thought on “Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Cases Challenging Juvenile Life Sentences Without Chance of Parole

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.