Justices Put Juvenile Sentencing Back On The Front Burner

By RJ Vogt | March 15, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up a new petition challenging a juvenile life sentence, signaling an interest in clarifying muddled precedents. (Jimmy Hoover | Law360)

What, exactly, is required for a judge to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without parole?

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to answer that question last week by taking up Jones v. Mississippi, a petition asking whether the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment requires sentencers to find a juvenile is "permanently incorrigible" before sending them to die in prison.

The justices already heard oral argument on the topic in the case of Lee Boyd Malvo, the notorious "D.C. Sniper" who was 17 years old when he helped his father figure, John Allen Muhammed, murder at least 10 people at random in October 2002.

Malvo had challenged his ensuing life sentences at the high court, but last month, his appeal was mooted by a new state law in Virginia offering parole to all juvenile offenders after they have served 20 years.

That development opened the door to other cases involving juvenile life sentencing, and on March 9, the justices selected Jones v. Mississippi out of a batch of five similar petitions.

Brought by Brett Jones, who was convicted as a teenager of killing his grandfather, the case hinges on how to interpret two landmark Supreme Court rulings.

The first, 2012's Miller v. Alabama decision, declared that mandatory juvenile life sentences are unconstitutional. To send a young person to die in prison, Miller stated, a sentencing judge or jury must first consider that person's developing brain and capacity for rehabilitation.

The justices then made Miller retroactive in 2016's Montgomery v. Louisiana opinion, which required courts around the country to resentence an estimated 2,800 juvenile lifers so that their youth could be fairly considered.

Montgomery has been controversial since the day it was written, in part because it held that only those juveniles whose crimes reflected "permanent incorrigibility" could receive life without parole.

Supreme Court precedent had previously said such a finding was too difficult for judges to make in cases involving youth, leading Justice Antonin Scalia to declare that Montgomery was a poorly disguised attempt to rewrite Miller and eliminate life without parole for juveniles.

In a vigorous dissent, Justice Scalia noted that even when judges properly consider youth at sentencing — as required by Miller — defendants could use Montgomery to argue that that their crimes did not "reflect permanent incorrigibility."

His prediction has come true in the Jones case, in which an appellate judge considered evidence of Jones' immaturity but nevertheless upheld the life without parole sentence — without making an explicit finding that Jones was, in fact, permanently incorrigible.

In a statement, Jones' attorneys David Shapiro and Jake Howard of the MacArthur Justice Center said his development over the past 15 years shows his crimes were born out of out of "transient immaturity."

"Before life without parole was imposed on Brett, the sentencing judge first needed to determine that Brett had no hope of redemption and rehabilitation," they said. "This was not done at Brett's resentencing, and we believe it would be impossible to find Brett 'permanently incorrigible.'"

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, agreed that making such a finding would be virtually impossible, citing prior Supreme Court rulings that noted how difficult it is to evaluate young people and declare they are irreparably corrupt.

But for Scheidegger, that impossibility demonstrates why Montgomery was "wrongly decided."

"They're making an argument to basically overrule Miller," he told Law360. "Because Miller explicitly said the court can sentence juveniles to life without parole ... There may not be any way out without at least partially overruling one of these precedents."

According to Jones' petition, he grew up in a troubled household: His father was a violent alcoholic, his stepfather physically and verbally abused him, and his mother suffered from manic depression, a bipolar disorder and a habit of self-injury that Jones also exhibited by cutting himself.

In the summer of 2004, Jones escaped his family by moving in with his paternal grandparents. One morning, his grandfather caught him and his girlfriend in his bedroom, leading to an argument that later turned violent. When his grandfather swung at him, Jones responded by stabbing him with a kitchen knife. Allegedly, his grandfather "continued to come" at him, leading Jones to stab him seven more times.

During the ensuing murder trial, Jones testified that he had acted in self-defense. But the jury rejected his claim, finding him guilty and sentencing him to life in prison without parole — a then-mandatory penalty in Mississippi.

Jones subsequently won a new sentencing hearing after the U.S. Supreme Court declared mandatory life sentences unconstitutional for juveniles in 2012's Miller opinion. At that hearing, a correction officer testified that Jones was a "good kid" who "got along with everybody" and "tried to do the right thing" in prison. Jones himself testified that he had learned to manage his mental health condition after regular sessions with a professional.

Despite this progress, Mississippi Circuit Judge Thomas J. Gardner III upheld Jones' life sentence in April 2015. In his order, the judge did not address Jones' capacity for rehabilitation but instead focused primarily on the nature of the gruesome crime and the fact that Jones attempted to conceal it by hiding the body and washing away the blood.

Judge Gardner also highlighted that Jones was "intimate" with his girlfriend and at one point thought she was pregnant.

"That suspicion proved to be untrue, but demonstrates that the defendant had reached some degree of maturity in at least one area," Judge Gardner wrote.

Mississippi has urged the Supreme Court to uphold Jones' sentence, noting that neither Miller nor Montgomery required an explicit finding of permanent incorrigibility.

"If this Court intended that the sentencing court be required to make the finding of fact regarding the defendant being permanently incorrigible, it would have held that in either Miller or Montgomery," Mississippi stated.

The Mississippi Attorney General's Office declined to comment on the high court's decision to take up Jones' appeal, saying it would let its filings "speak for themselves."

Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled in the case.

--Editing by Jill Coffey.

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