Supreme Court Holds Eighth Amendment Prohibits Mandatory Life without Parole Sentences in Juvenile Homicide Cases

By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Billy Sinclair

The Juveniles:

Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson had a lot in common in their childhoods as Lyle Denniston described in a March 12, 2012 SC0TUSblog post: they lived in violent homes, suffered from low self-esteem, moral neglect and worse. Crime became, to them, a rational response to their life situation; and in both cases their criminal pursuits led to the killing of innocent people and, subsequently, to life sentences without parole in state prison systems. They joined the nationwide Life without Parole (LWOP) ranks of 2300 other such juvenile offenders.

Evan Miller:

The parental abuse at home was so terrible that Evan tried to commit suicide the first time at age five. That attempt was followed by seven more attempts before he reached his fourteenth birthday. Life was hard for his poverty-stricken family in “rural north-central Alabama.” Denniston reported that after Evan reached eight years of age, he was treated “from time to time” for mental health problems. He was in and out of foster care because of his mother’s drug/alcohol abuse. Finally, at age 10, the kid returned home from foster care where he was reunited with his horribly abusive father. By that time the youth had become “an active drug abuser.” The prison system lay like a slithering python ready to gobble him up. Normal survival in the “free world” was out the question; his life circumstances dictated one result—crime and prison.

Evan turned fourteen in 2003. At the time he was still living with his family in the small town of Speake, Alabama. They lived in the Country Life Trailer Court near what Denniston said was “the Five Points community.” The Old South is filled with “Five Points” sections in poor rural areas—and they’re havens for drugs, prostitution, and violence. They are those “across the track” communities within the larger community where “poor folks” live in trailers and ramshackle shacks. Violence strikes quick and ugly in these communities. Denniston described Miller’s brief but fatal courtship with the act of violence that sent him to an adult prison.

52-year-old Cole Cannon also lived in same trailer park. On the night of July 5, 2003, Cannon went to the Miller trailer looking for something to eat. He was drunk. He found Evan and his older 16-year-old friend, Colby Smith, alone at the Miller trailer. The teens gave Cannon a “plate of spaghetti.” Cannon left and returned to his own trailer. Whether the teens concocted a plan to kill Cannon is uncertain. What is certain is that they left the Miller trailer and went to Cannon’s trailer. There they found a collection of baseball cards and, along with Cannon, the trio decided to sell them to get some money.

Later in the evening, Cannon took the boys back to his trailer where the trio drank whiskey and smoked marijuana. The first question that comes to mind is: what was a drunken 52-year-old man doing “hanging out” with two teenage boys? The fact that he was plying the boys with marijuana and whiskey implies he had ulterior motives. Whether that is true or not is a matter of pure speculation. What is true is that Cannon passed out and Evan removed Cannon’s wallet and took $300 from it. He gave half of it to Smith. And while trying to place the wallet back in Cannon’s pocket, the older man awoke and grabbed Evan by the throat. Smith grabbed a nearby baseball bat and struck Cannon once with it. Free of Cannon’s grasp, Evan grabbed the bat and repeatedly struck Cannon with it. He then put Cannon’s head in a sheet and reportedly said: “I am God, I’ve come to take your life.” He struck Cannon one more time. One doesn’t have to have a psychology degree hanging on their wall to know that Evan was returning to a drunken adult all the beatings he had received from another.

The two teenagers left Cannon’s trailer but returned to clean up the evidence. Unable to clean up the splattered blood, the duo decided to burn Cannon’s trailer.  They lit two fires before stopping up a sink and turning on a faucet, believing the running water would put out the blaze. It did not. Severely injured, Cannon could not get up from the floor to escape the flames. He perished from smoke inhalation and his mortal injuries. The teens were quickly arrested. Evan was charged with two counts of murder for the one killing: murder during an arson and murder during a robbery. Colby cut a deal and testified against Evan who was tried as an adult. He was convicted, and under Alabama law, sentenced to a mandatory life sentence without the benefit of parole.

Kuntrell Jackson:

Like Evan, Kuntrell grew up in impoverished circumstances in the Chicksaw Courts Housing Project in Blytheville, Arkansas—a government subsidized housing project notorious for its drug abuse and violent crime. Kuntrell had also been the target of severe physical abuse by his mother’s boyfriend and father figure. He inherited the firm belief that crime was a natural response to his deprived life circumstance. After all, his mother and brother had both been convicted of crimes and sent off to prison. Thus, he thought it was natural to be on the opposite side of the police (“Five-O”)—before his fourteenth birthday, he had been busted for shoplifting, stealing a car, and other crimes—some of which earned him a stay in a “juvenile detention center as a serious offender.”

So, on November 18, 1999, just two weeks after he had turned fourteen, it was not unusual that he and two older teens from the same housing project stood around talking about robbing the Movie Magic Video store. They were deadly serious. The older of the teens, Derrick Shields, was armed with a 410-shotgun he carried in his coat sleeve. As the trio approached the video store, it was agreed that Shields and the other teen, Travis Booker, would go into the store and do the robbery while Kuntrell waited outside.

Laurie Troup was the unfortunate clerk working that night when Shields and Booker entered the store. Waving the shotgun, Shields began demanding money. For whatever inexplicable reason, Troup resisted the robbery, telling Shields there was no money in the store. At some point Toup told the trio she was calling the police at which time Shields shot her face with the shotgun, killing her instantly.

The trio fled without any money. Kuntrell was arrested four months later, but not before jokingly telling friends he was responsible for the robbery/murder at the video store. All three youths confessed to the crime shortly after their arrests with Kuntrell identifying Shields as the shooter. Kuntrell sought to be tried as a juvenile, but that motion was denied by the trial court because of his criminal record. He was subsequently convicted as an adult of capital murder and aggravated robbery, and pursuant to Arkansas law, was sentenced to life without parole.

The Supreme Court Decision:

In 2005 the Court handed down a precedent ruling that offenders who commit their crimes under the age of seventeen could not be given the death penalty. Roper v. Simmons held that the Eighth Amendment guarantees that an individual not be subjected to excessive sanctions. The decision was based on the longstanding Eighth Amendment principle announced by the Court in 1910 that the “cruel and unusual punishment” provisions of the amendment “flows from the basic ‘precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned’” to both the offense and offender.

Three years later the Court in Kennedy v. Louisiana held that it violates the Eighth Amendment to impose the death penalty in any non-homicide case. Two years later in Graham v. Florida the Court advanced the Eighth Amendment a step further in cases of children tried as adults; namely, they cannot be sentenced to life without parole in non-homicide cases. These three cases inevitably led to Miller and Jackson’s cases being brought before the Court, and as most criminal justice experts expected, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a mandatory life without parole sentence being imposed in homicide cases when the offender commits the offense as a juvenile. Following the lead of Roper and Graham, the Court explained the basis for its decision:

“To start with the first set of cases: Roper and Graham establish that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, we explained ‘they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.’ Those cases relied on three significant gaps between juveniles and adults. First, children have a ‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’ leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Second, children ‘are more vulnerable … to negative influences and outside pressures,’ including from their family and peers; they have limited ‘control over their own environment’ and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. And third, a child’s character is not as ‘well formed’ as an adult’s; his traits are ‘less fixed’ and his actions are less likely to be ‘evidence of irretrievable depravity.’

“Our decisions rested not only on common sense—on what ‘any parent knows’—but on science and social science as well. In Roper, we cited studies showing that ‘only a relatively small proportion of adolescents’ who engage in illegal activity ‘develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.’ And in Graham, we noted that ‘developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds’—for example, in ‘parts of the brain involved in behavior control.’ We reasoned that those findings—of transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences—both lessened a child ‘moral culpability’ and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs’ ‘his deficiencies will be reformed.’

Roper and Graham emphasized that the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes. Because ‘the heart of the retribution rationale’ relates to an offender’s blameworthiness,’ ‘the case for retribution is not as strong with a minor as with an adult.’ Nor can deterrence do the work in this context, because ‘the same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults’—their immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity—make them less likely to consider potential punishment. Similarly, incapacitation could not support the life-without-parole sentence in Graham: Deciding that a ‘juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society’ would require ‘making a judgment that [he] is incorrigible’—but ‘incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth.’ And for the same reason, rehabilitation could not justify that sentence. Life without parole ‘forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal.’ It reflects ‘an irrevocable judgment about [an offender’s] value and place in society,’ at odds with a child’s capacity for change.

Graham concluded from this analysis that life-without-parole sentences, like capital punishment, may violate the Eighth Amendment when imposed on children. To be sure, Graham’s flat ban on life without parole applied only to nonhomicide crimes, and the Court took care to distinguished those offenses from murder, based on both moral culpability and consequential harm. But none of what it said about children—about their distinctive (and transitory) mental traits and environmental vulnerabilities—is crime-specific. Those features are evident in the same way, and to the same degree, when (as in both cases here) a botched robbery turns into a killing. So Graham’s reasoning implicates any life-without-parole sentence imposed on a juvenile, even as it’s categorical bar relates only to nonhomicide cases.”

The Court’s opinion, however, was not as sweeping as the news headlines indicated. The Court only struck down “mandatory” life sentences without parole for juveniles. Thus, the Court’s decision applied only to states that mandatorily impose life sentences without parole on juveniles. As the Court concluded:

Graham, Roper, and our individualized sentencing decisions make clear that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles. By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.”

We would have preferred that the Court extend its ruling to all life sentences without parole on juveniles, regardless of their circumstances. We had hoped the Court would have followed completely its position in Graham: that a life sentence without parole imposed on a juvenile is cruel and unusual. Any juvenile facing a life sentence, regardless of the offense, should have the benefit of parole. It would then be left up to parole boards, in their discretion, to determine if after 10, 20 or even 30 years, the juvenile turned adult no longer posed a threat to society. Whether or not any juvenile offender should spend the rest of his life in prison should not be a judge/jury decision but a decision made after a period of incarceration and opportunity for reform.

By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Billy Sinclair
John Floyd is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization