March 20, 2012 • Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer
Tomorrow morning the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a case that will determine whether it is unconstitutional for a state to sentence juveniles who commit murder to life in prison without parole.
As reported in the Huffington Post, the case arises out of two gruesome killings, one in Alabama, the other in Arkansas:
Evan Miller, of Speake, Ala., was sentenced to life without parole for beating a 52-year-old man with a baseball bat and burning him alive in a mobile home. Kuntrell Jackson, of Blytheville, Ark., was convicted in the shooting death of a video store clerk.
Both Miller and Jackson were 14 years old when the crimes were committed.
It’s important to recognize what these cases, Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, are not about it. The Supreme Court is not being asked to determine whether Miller or Jackson are guilty of murder. This is not a case about their conduct. It’s a case about the limits of a state to punish people even when they are guilty. Thus, for example, the Court has previously decided that it is unconstitutional for states to sentence adults convicted of rape to the death penalty. Likewise, in Graham v. Florida, states were prevented from sentencing juveniles to life sentences in cases not involving homicide.
One of the issues that confronts the Court is the extent to which states need to take into account the scientific understanding of juvenile brain development. There is an enormous and growing body of research that shows that the brains of young adults are different in their capacity to regulate impulses. Some evidence suggests that the brain doesn’t fully mature until well after someone’s teenage years. From a scientific point of view, there is little doubt that the brain of a 14 year old is not fully developed. That is one basis on which the Supreme Court will be asked to throw out sentences that provide juveniles no chance of parole.
My best guess is that the Supreme Court’s decision in this case will be close–either 5 to 4 or 6 to 3. What is more clear, however, is that Jackson and Miller have already lost–and lost badly–in the court of public opinion. Despite the scientific evidence that juvenile brains are different from adult brains, most adults believe that juveniles who commit murder should be treated as murderers, regardless of their age. This is true even on supposedly liberal sites, like the comments section of the Huffington Post. Even there, more people advocate putting Miller and Jackson to death (something the Court is not being asked to decide), than are even a bit sympathetic to their argument that they should at least have a chance at parole.
It’s this kind of thinking that makes it so difficult to reform the juvenile justice system.