For 17-year olds, though, who are tried as adults, there is presently no legal sentence available under Texas law. A 2005 statute made the death penalty and LWOP the only available sentences for adults convicted of capital murder, and for purposes of trying to kill them or incarcerate them for life, at least, Texas treats 17 year olds as adults. Or it did until the Supreme Court said that, for the most extreme sentencing purposes, they belonged in the juvenile category. The SCOTUS ruling prompted state courts, now including Texas, to reconsider their old juvie LWOP sentences, and the results have been all over the map. In Texas, this will be a case of first impression.
Grits may try to carve out time to go hear oral arguments on this one, depending on when they are. I'm interested to hear how they handle this condundrum where Texas law and SCOTUS rulings have combined to leave no legal sentence available on the books for 17-year old capital murderers.
As noted before, state Sen. Joan Huffman has filed legislation to address this question in a way that maximizes the most punitive sentencing options. SB 187 would make the only two sentencing options for juveniles convicted of capital murder "life" or "life without parole." That gives prosecutors an incredible plea bargaining hammer, just as the Lege did in 2005 by making LWOP the only alternative to a death sentence in capital cases. But prosecutors already have plenty of leverage to secure convictions. While I agree the law must change, Huffman's suggested fix needlessly expands the already growing and increasingly expensive bubble of prisoners serving life and LWOP sentences at TDCJ, part of a trend of the Calfornication of Texas prison sentences.
Make me philosopher king and I'd just eliminate capital charges for both 17-year olds and juveniles charged as adults and see them all charged under regular murder statutes. Juries could still authorize a life sentence and decades down the line the parole board could assess their dangerousness. But eliminating the LWOP option would avoid the state having to revisit the statute again and again as SCOTUS fills out its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence on these questions. When SCOTUS eliminated all the available punishments for juveniles under Texas' capital statute, it should have made legislators reconsider these harsher-than-thou approaches. Life without parole for juveniles is inappropriately harsh and the cost-benefit analysis of lifetime incarceration beginning at 15, 16, or 17 makes no sense.
See related Grits posts:
- 17-year old capital defendant in legal limbo following SCOTUS rulings
- Adjusting juvenile law in light of SCOTUS rulings, scientific advancements
- SCOTUS ruling leaves 17 year old capital murderers in sentencing limbo
- Issue-spotting the mess sure to follow Miller's narrow (procedural?) ruling
- Basic mandatory juve LWOP head-count in light of Miller
- Data and resources to gear up for the coming Miller meshugas
- Pennsylvania Supreme Court hearing arguments on (first?) major Miller retroactivity cases
- Intermediate Florida appeals court decides Miller is not to apply retoractively
- Without fanfare, Louisiana Supreme Court gives retroactive effect to Miller via brief order
- Michigan appeals court decides Miller is not retroactive to final juve murder cases
- Reviewing at least some of the Miller meshugas in some states
- Does Miller also render presumptive juvie LWOP sentencing unconstitutional?
- Two distinct Illinois appellate panels find Miller retroactive on two separate groungs
- Intriguing Massachusetts development in response to SCOTUS Miller ruling
- 'Sentenced to confusion: Miller v. Alabama and the coming wave of Eighth Amendment cases'