“Before Miller, every juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could be sentenced to life without parole. After Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence.”
– from the majority opinion in the recent Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruling on Montgomery v. Louisiana, delivered by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
Four years ago, a Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama put an end to life sentences without the possibility of parole for most young killers.
The majority held that children are fundamentally different from adults, and that several key characteristics specific to minors — such as lack of maturity and the propensity for some to be easily influenced –should be taken into account when they are sentenced. Furthermore, SCOTUS ruled, an offender’s ability to change must also be taken into account. Finally, the Court said that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is too severe in most cases, and essentially amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
Last week, America’s highest court held that the 2012 ruling can be applied retroactively.
In other words, all juvenile offenders found guilty of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole at any time before the Miller decision took effect must now get a chance to seek it. According to published reports, that could affect up to 1,000 offenders in three states.
Looking at these decisions from a strictly logical — rather than a strictly legal — standpoint, it is clear that they reveal a basic but serious flaw in the American justice system.
As we all know, the system is designed to protect the defendant’s rights from the time he or she is first questioned by the authorities through a trial (if the case comes to that) and beyond. The goal is to thwart unscrupulous police conduct, prevent wrongful conviction and remedy wrongful conviction if it occurs.
The preservation of a defendant’s Constitutional rights is paramount, and understandably so.
On the other hand — as the SCOTUS rulings in Miller and Montgomery demonstrate — the system routinely shows little regard, much less compassion, for victims and their families.
Of course it goes without saying that not all victims of violent crime are fine, upstanding, law-abiding citizens. One could even argue that some people who are murdered deserve their fate. Make no mistake about it: my argument does not pertain to them, but to ordinary people who have been killed in cold blood. It also pertains to the “young offenders” who have taken their lives.
Take Henry Montgomery. Today he is known as the petitioner in Montgomery v. Louisiana. But he was just 17 when he killed a cop in East Baton Rouge back in 1963. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and is now 69.
In delivering the court’s decision that the Miller ruling should apply to Montgomery’s case, Justice Kennedy wrote:
“Extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders does not impose an onerous burden on the States, nor does it disturb the finality of state convictions. Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences. The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition — that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”
After spending most of his life in prison, Montgomery claims that he has changed. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. The bottom line is that he was convicted of killing Charles Hurt. A jury determined that Montgomery robbed Hurt of his future, and robbed Hurt’s family of a future with him. And that will never change.
Yet the Court makes no mention of the toll the crime likely took on Montgomery’s loved ones in its January 25 ruling on his case. Instead, Kennedy quotes from another case, Graham v. Florida, writing:
“Because retribution ‘relates to an offender’s blameworthiness, the case for retribution is not as strong with a minor as with an adult.'”
Yes, it would seem that a young killer’s rights trump all. The fact that a life has been taken means little. The fact that a family is left behind to pick up the pieces means nothing if the murderer was young, or too stupid to know better, or easily influenced.
A cynic could even say the odds are stacked against victims, their loved ones and the hard-working prosecutors that seek justice for them.
As anyone with even the most basic knowledge of criminal justice can tell you, crimes are committed against the community, not individuals. So technically, prosecuting attorneys represent “the people,” not the individual victim. In and of itself, that fundamental lack of personal advocacy can be confusing and frustrating, especially for those traumatized by violent crime.
Then there are the rules that can prevent the revelation of certain information about the defendant — such as prior convictions — at trial because it could be prejudicial. On the other hand, there’s little to keep the defense from calling witnesses to discredit the victim — especially if there’s anything sketchy in his or her past.
Now, to make matters even worse, the families of people murdered by minors initially sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole must come to grips with the fact that those killers may someday go free. For those who wish to prevent it, their only recourse may be to write the Parole Board or appear at the offender’s parole hearing to have their say.
I can only imagine how scary, unpleasant and stressful that would be. It would be cruel and unusual punishment, indeed.
*Because this blog is written for a general audience, Bluebook citations are not included.