The law in Kentucky has long been settled that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole is a cruel and unusual punishment as applied to juvenile offenders. Workman v. Commonwealth, 429 S.W.2d 374, 377 (1968). This is not yet the case in every state.
A January opinion in Florida expanded on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 176 L. Ed. 2d 825 (2010), in reviewing whether or not a sentence of life in prison without the possibility for parole violates a juvenile offender’s Eighth Amendment right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment. In Arrington v. State, 2012 Fla. App. LEXIS 536, 37 Fla. L. Weekly D 155 (2012), Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals reversed a juvenile’s mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The juvenile was convicted of felony murder but merely supplied the handgun used and did not actually commit the murder.
Graham forbids a life sentence without parole for a juvenile “who did not commit homicide.” The question addressed by the Arrington court is whether a felony murder conviction can be considered a “nonhomicide” if the offending juvenile did not actually commit the homicide. A juvenile could be charged with felony murder if he or she is the principal to the homicide or if he or she is merely a participant in the murder.
The court considered whether life without the possibility of parole could be cruel and unusual as applied to a juvenile convicted of felony murder who did not commit the actual act of murder but was merely a party to the crime.
The Graham court “recognized that defendants who do not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken are categorically less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment than are murderers.” Graham at 2027.
The court looked at the punishment meted out for the same crime committed by an adult. For an adult, the most severe punishment is the death penalty. That punishment is reserved only for persons who actually committed the murder or who significantly participated in the underlying felony with reckless disregard for human life. Because a life sentence without the possibility for parole is the harshest sentence available for juveniles, the same logic should be extended to juvenile offenders. It would be disproportionate to mandate a felony murder sentence for a juvenile who was a party to the murder that is equal to the sentence for one who actually pulled the trigger and killed a victim in a premeditated act.
The court looked at Florida law which mandated this harsh sentence based on the grand jury’s indictment, while not requiring the grand jury to be informed that their indictment will lead to this mandatory sentence.
The court looked to the laws of California, New York, and Texas and found that the three states similar in population to Florida allowed courts discretion in the sentencing of juveniles convicted of felony murder. Similarly, neighboring Georgia also allowed for discretion. Alabama had a mandatory sentence like Florida’s, but the Supreme Court recently granted cert to consider whether Alabama’s mandatory life-without-parole sentence for capital murder is cruel and unusual as applied to young offenders.
Ultimately, the Court held that in the very limited context of sentencing juveniles, the trial court must have an element of discretion to prevent sentences that would otherwise be cruel and unusual. The main factors in the court’s decisions were the age of the juvenile, some who may not yet be teenagers and some who may almost be adults; the juvenile’s involvement in the murder as compared to the underlying felony, which may be minimal or quite substantial; and the fact that life without the possibility of parole is the most severe available punishment for juvenile offenders.
On March 20, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in the cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. Each case deals with the issue of whether imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility for parole on a juvenile offender is cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Attorney Bryan Stevenson, who is representing the defendant in both cases, invoked Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 Supreme Court decision which held it unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on a juvenile. He emphasized the points made in Roper that juveniles cannot be judged or sentenced in the same way as adults because of their ongoing cognitive development. The state's argument focuses on the nature of the crimes committed and the concept that a punishment should fit the crime. Legal scholars believe that the Court's decision will come down to which is more important: the nature of the crime, or the nature of juveniles.
-Written by Adam Turer, Northern Kentucky University Law Student