Sunday, February 10, 2013

Texas high court to consider whether SCOTUS' Miller ruling on juvie LWOP is retroactive

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this week agreed to hear arguments in Ex Parte Terrell to determine whether the Supreme Court's Miller v. Alabama - a case which banned life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles if lesser options weren't offered - applies retroactively in Texas. As I understand it, there were around 28 Texas prisoners convicted of capital murder at age 17 between 2005, when LWOP was made a sentencing option for adults, and 2009 when the Legislature eliminated life without parole for juveniles 16 and under. Currently, juveniles sentenced to capital life are eligible for parole after 40 years.

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:
See also a lengthy thread re: Miller v. Alabama on the Texas prosecutors' message board, and extensive coverage from Sentencing Law and Policy regarding litigation and legislation from other states related to Miller's retroactivity:

1 comment:

Soronel Haetir said...

Regardless of what state courts do with it and regardless of whether I think SCOTUS was correct on this one I see no possibility that the high court won't eventually say Miller is retroactive.