In one of the last rulings of the spring term, the United States Supreme Court has given new hope to children who are convicted of capital crimes. In Miller v. Alabama, the Court was asked to rule on whether a mandatory life without parole sentence is permissible under the Constitution. The defendant in the case was 14 at the time of the offense. Under Alabama law, the only possible punishment for capital murder is death or mandatory life without parole. However, the Supreme Court has previously ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death. As such, Miller was initially sentenced to the only possible sentence, life without the possibility of parole.
In its ruling, the Court stopped short of outlawing life without parole sentences. Instead, it directed the courts to engage in a defendant specific analysis of whether the punishment is warranted. The courts may still impose a mandatory life sentence, but the court cautioned it should be rare.
What remains to be seen is how the ruling will be interpreted. The first major question is whether a juvenile defendant may be charged with capital murder in Alabama. The law as it is currently written only provides for death or mandatory life without parole. This creates a situation where the only there is possibly no valid sentence for a juvenile. Since there is no legal sentence available, should the charges be thrown out in favor of murder charges? Perhaps.
Another looming question is what happens to those who are already serving life without? It would seem they are at a minimum due a new sentencing. At the sentencing, the defendant should be allowed to put on mitigation evidence that demonstrates why leniency is appropriate. This can and should involve the use of experts and psychological testing rather than just testimony from the defendant’s family. One thing is for sure; we have not seen the last of the Miller case.