The Supreme Court said Monday that it will decide whether it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles who kill to life in prison without the chance of parole, a next step after the court’s recent rulings that children may not be eligible for the same tough sentences as adults.
The justices ruled in 2005 that juveniles may not be executed for their crimes. In 2010, they said that teenagers may not be locked up for life without the possibility of parole for crimes other than homicide.
On Monday, the court took two cases that provide the chance for extending the court’s logic that teenagers lack the responsible decision-making capabilities that should subject them to the same penalties as adults.
The cases, brought by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., both concern 14-year-olds who killed. The organization says there are approximately 70 people in 18 states who are under life sentences with no chance of parole for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14.
In previous decisions, both written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court made no distinction among those younger than 18.
In a case from Alabama, Evan Miller was convicted of capital murder after he and a companion beat a 52-year-old man and set his house on fire. The man had been drinking and doing drugs with Miller and a 16-year-old friend and, according to Miller, had attacked him. The friend, who received a life sentence with the possibility of parole, testified against Miller.
The second case, from Arkansas, involves the shooting death of a store clerk during an attempted robbery. Kuntrell Jackson’s case contains an additional element: Another boy shot the clerk, but Jackson was convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery.
Bryan Stevenson, the initiative’s executive director, cited the court’s earlier rulings on society’s recognition that acceptable punishment for adult criminals does not hold for immature juveniles.
“The identical analysis which led to the results in those cases logically compels the conclusion that consigning a 14-year-old to die in prison through a life-without-parole sentence categorically violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments,” Stevenson wrote.
The justices decided not to consider the appeal of a Texas death row inmate whom they spared from execution last September.
The court decided not to hear the claim of Duane Buck that race played an improper role in his sentencing, meaning Texas can issue another execution date for Buck, who was sentenced to death for killing his ex-girlfriend and a man in her apartment in 2005.
Usually, the court does not offer a reason for turning down an appeal. But five of the nine signed two opposing views on the case.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan said they would have heard the appeal because Buck’s case was “marred by racial overtones and a record compromised by misleading remarks and omissions.”
Psychologist Walter Quijano testified that members of Buck’s race — he is African American — are statistically more likely to commit crimes than members of other races. That was enough for Texas to order new punishment hearings for five other death row inmates at whose trials Quijano testified. But the state said Buck’s case was different because his own lawyers had elicited Quijano’s testimony.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by colleagues Antonin Scalia and Stephen G. Breyer, agreed.
“This is the only case in which it can be said that the responsibility for eliciting the offensive testimony lay squarely with the defense,” Alito wrote.
The case is Buck v. Thaler.