Monday, June 25, 2012

SCOTUS ruling leaves 17 year old capital murderers in sentencing limbo

The US Supreme Court today ruled that life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional when the sentence is mandatory. (See initial coverage from SCOTUSBlog and from Sentencing Law & Policy here, here, here, and here.) At first blush, Grits thought the case might not affect Texas since we abolished life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles in 2009. But at the Texas District and County Attorneys User Forum, Shannon Edmonds raised a valid point: "since current Texas law eliminates death for 17-year-olds, leaving LWOP as the only option, isn't it 'mandatory' under current law?"

The issue arises because the age of majority in Texas is 17, whereas the feds consider youth juveniles until they're 18. Edmonds suggested that as a result of today's ruling, "the Legislature will have to pass a life-with-parole carve-out for 17yo killers, as they previously did for capital murderers under 17yo back in 2009." A prosecutor from Hidalgo County concurred with Edmonds, but wondered what happens between now and then:
It appears that we now have a capital murder offense for which both punishments under the Penal Code, a death sentence and LWOP, have now been held unconstitutional when the defendant was 17 or younger at the time of offense commission. I don't think that it is possible to impose some other sentence for capital murder that is not authorized under the Penal Code. So my question becomes what are our options until the Legislature meets in January? Are we left with proceeding on a murder charge and trying to obtain a lengthy sentence as our only option at this point?
Good question. I'm not a lawyer, but offhand it strikes me as correct that there are presently no constitutional sentences on the books in Texas for a 17-year old convicted of capital murder. They're not eligible for the juvenile max sentence (which makes them parole eligible after 40 years), and both the death penalty and life without parole have been taken off the table by the US Supreme Court. That leaves the only apparent option seeking a "life" sentence for "regular" murder, which in Texas makes one eligible for parole after 30 years. For the time being, at least until the Legislature meets again, that must suffice as justice.

There's one other possible impact of today's ruling in Texas: After the state made life without parole the only alternative to the death penalty for capital murderers in 2005, a handful of juveniles were given that sentence after being tried as adults, a situation that ended when the Lege in 2009 made juvenile capital murderers parole eligible after 40 years. So the question arises, will those juveniles be eligible for re-sentencing, or will this be treated as a procedural change that is not retroactive? States around the country will face the same question in the coming weeks and months, some on a much larger scale than Texas, which has just a few such cases.

MORE (6/26): An editorial in the Austin Statesman gave these additional details about Texas juveniles sentenced to LWOP between 2005 and 2009:
Thus, 27 juveniles who were convicted of capital murder as adults between 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty for juveniles, and the passage of the new 2009 law are sitting in prison without any chance for parole. Monday's ruling should lead to new punishment hearings for these individuals. ...

In Texas, 10 inmates were younger than 16 at the time they committed their crimes.
AND MORE: The Texas Tribune speculates whether the Governor may commute sentences for the 27 Texas inmates sentenced to LWOP as juveniles:
After the Supreme Court in 2005 decided that the death penalty for juveniles was unconstitutional, Gov. Rick Perrycommuted the sentences for 28 17-year-olds on death row. All 28 were given life sentences with the possibility of parole in 40 years.

After Monday's ruling, the state is still determining what action to take. “The Governor’s Office is working with the Attorney General, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, prosecutors and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to determine how many individuals may be affected by this ruling and what the appropriate steps will be for Texas going forward,” Josh Havens, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said in a statement.

Jason Clark of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said his office began preparing soon after the court’s announcement, and identified the 27 convicts in anticipation of any requests from the attorney general or governor’s offices.

12 comments:

sunray's wench said...

It is a very sad day when a society decides it has no other option but to lock away a child for life, and not make any further attempts to encourage that child to be a productive member of society. To me, that's when a society fails, and it is nothing to be proud of.

Anonymous said...

nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

sunshine said...

Children do not have adult brains, they are not adults and therefore should not be tried or treated as an adult. A 17 year old is not an adult either.

Cindy said...

I work with juveniles in the Texas juvenile justice system and some 21 year olds are not adults.

john said...

You can a train children to do various things, but only age and experience hopes for wisdom. Kids locked away need education on a wide scale to aim for experience they might have received in life, had they not fallen into serious crime.
But always you have the problem of who will JUDGE a prisoner's knowledge & heart? Probably some committee of folks NOT being paid by the judiciary/penal/legal system would be in order; and maybe throw in some peers?

Alan Turing say CAPTCHA~?

Anonymous said...

So you know, this is essentially guaranteed to effect Texas. Alabama's set up, the one that got struck down by the court, is basically identical to ours. Alabama got to the court because they were left with mandatory juvenile LWOP because the law mandated that capital murder convictions result in a sentence of either LWOP or death and juvenile death sentences had already been taken off the table.

Anonymous said...

the difference between evil adults and evil kids - age. this law legalizes age discrimination.

Nico from Germany said...

hmm wtf? sorry but when i read this i have to wonder..... death penalty is one thing( a very bad thing i think) BUT: killing children is another. preventing crime is NOT an argument for death penalty. look at germany: WE have NO death penalty BUT our criminal statistic is much less than in the usa... our "adult" status goes regular from 18 years on BUT can go to 21......

Anonymous said...

Ever read of the 17 year old... or 27 year old (it doesn't make much difference in the end result) who just decides to go out and kill some random person for the thrill of it? The kind of person who'd "shoot a man in Reno, just to watch him die?" It happens all the time, by young kids and old folks too.

So say you execute this person after they've been found guilty. That takes care of them ever doing it again. Say you lock them up for the rest of their lives... well, they may kill a fellow inmate or a guard, but that's about it, and those people are aware of the risks of living/working in a prison.

OR... say you lock up a minor for 40 years for a particularly nasty gruesome murder... say of your child or spouse. If a minor, when they get out at age 57 or younger -- and if you pass them on the sidewalk in your home town -- how are you going to feel?

I don't hold the keys to justice or the wisdom of appropriate punishement, but for my money I'd rather not take a chance on crazy people of ANY age. Being young is not an excuse that allows one to do whatever they damn well please in society. Neither is ignorance of the law, though most people probably know society looks down on these kinds of behaviors, right?

Anonymous said...

So here is a novel idea- let the victim's family decide.Liberals believe there is good in all people so put your money where your mouth is.

Katrina Edmunds said...

Children do not have adult brains period. If they murder rape or cause seriously bodily injury to someone should be the ONLY way to try them as adults and even then they need extrene thearpy etc.... but Texas Law is jacked up and they charge 17 yrs olds as adults for less than murder rape or bodily harm.....You not a legal adult till 18 but uet the law gets to pick and choose. I was informed in texas you can be tried as an adult from age 10 to 17!!!! And to the person above how is a child to know all the laws they change all the time....I am 40 and cant keep up!!!

Anonymous said...

One of these kids was convicted for kidnap rob and murder of my son they took 5dollars a pair Jordans a cell phone and his jogging pants beat him with bats then locked him in the trunk of his car then burned him to death things he worked to buy while trying to pay his own way through college this was gang members age 14 to 30 they had never met him they say they were out to get christmas money