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Supreme Court could limit life terms for inmates 14 and younger

November 7, 2011 |  1:03 pm

Anthony Kennedy

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider putting a new national limit on life prison terms for juveniles age 14 or younger.

Nationwide, there are 73 inmates who were sentenced to life terms with no possible parole for their role in homicides committed when they were 14 or younger.

The justices voted to hear appeals from two of those inmates — one from Alabama and one from Arkansas — to decide whether such a punishment for a very young criminal violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Last year the justices ruled it was unconstitutional for Florida and other states to impose a life term with no parole for criminals under age 18 whose crimes did not involve a homicide.

The ruling in Graham vs. Florida did not say that these young criminals deserved to go free, but it said they were entitled to a parole hearing at some time to decide whether they were no longer a threat to society.

The two new cases involve young men who were convicted of murder or involvement in a homicide at age 14.

Evan Miller of Alabama was removed from his home at age 10 because of his father’s violent abuse. He was living in a trailer park when he and a 16-year-old fought with a drunken neighbor and set his home on fire. The older youth blamed the 14-year-old for the crime, and Miller was convicted and condemned to spend his life in prison.

In Arkansas, Kuntrell Jackson was given a life term for his part in the attempted robbery of a video store in which another teenager shot and killed the store clerk. Jackson was not accused of firing the gun or intending to commit murder, but he was nonetheless given a mandatory life term with no parole.

Alabama civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, who brought the earlier juvenile cases to the high court, filed appeals on behalf of Miller and Jackson and urged the justices to declare unconstitutional such life terms.

He said the vast majority of states have never imposed life terms for such young offenders. Only 18 states permit such punishments, he said, and there are few such cases even in states such as Alabama.

“Internationally, the United States is the only country in the world where death-in-prison sentences have been imposed on young adolescents,” Stevenson wrote in his appeal.

The outcome in these cases almost certainly depends on Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. 

In 2005, Kennedy wrote a 5-4 decision that abolished the death penalty for criminals who were under age 18. And last year the four liberal justices joined his 5-4 opinion in the Florida case.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. agreed separately that it was unconstitutional to impose a life term on a 17-year-old for two robberies.

The new cases will be heard in February or March, and a ruling will be handed down by summer.

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-- David G. Savage in Washington

Photo: Anthony Kennedy is expected to be the deciding factor in the latest cases. Credit: Gary Fabiano / Pool Photo

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