The Supreme Court said Friday that it will decide whether hundreds of juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole deserve a chance to be resentenced.
The court announced it will consider the case of a Louisiana man who said the court’s 2012 decision banning mandatory life sentences for juveniles must be applied retroactively.
The 5-to-4 ruling in Miller v. Alabama said that state laws mandating life in prison without the possibility of parole for those younger than 18 offend the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. That decision was part of a trend at the court of treating even the worst juvenile offenders differently from adults.
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the 2012 decision. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
But since that ruling, courts around the country have split on whether the decision applies retroactively.
Most courts have recognized the Miller decision as a new “substantive” rule that, under the court’s precedents, must be applied to those sentenced before the June 2012 decision.
Others courts, however, called it a “procedural rule,” not available to those already sentenced. Those courts note that the Miller decision did not ban life imprisonment without parole but said such a sentence could not be mandatory. Judges must be able to take other factors into account, the Supreme Court said.
According to attorneys for George Toca, accused of accidentally shooting his best friend and partner during a botched armed robbery in 1984, state supreme courts in Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have found the rule procedural and have refused requests for resentencing.
Toca’s brief said most federal courts that have considered the issue and supreme courts in Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Texas have found that the change is substantive.
Toca’s attorney, Emily Maw of Innocence Project New Orleans, said the lesson of Miller is that “the harshest possible sentence should be the exception, while a sentence that provided a meaningful opportunity to obtain release would be the norm.”
Although Toca has claimed he did not commit the shooting and another youth has said he was responsible, the issue of innocence is not before the court.
Maw wrote that Toca is an example of the kind of growth the Supreme Court said was possible for juvenile offenders. In his time in prison, Toca has earned a bachelor’s degree, she wrote, and the shooting victim’s family supports his plea for resentencing.
Besides arguing that the Louisiana court was right to find Miller not retroactive, prosecutors said it would be impossible to turn the clock back 30 years and gauge Toca’s “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change” at the time of the crime.
The case is Toca v. Louisiana.
The court also agreed to hear from the inventor of a Spider-Man web-shooting toy who says an antiquated Supreme Court ruling is keeping him from earning royalties on his design.
Stephen Kimble obtained a patent in 1991 for a wristband he developed that shoots foam string, mimicking the web-
creating technique for which the comic book superhero is known.
Kimble later entered into an agreement with Marvel Entertainment to develop the Web Blaster, but it has been a litigious relationship. Kimble finally assigned his patent to Marvel for a lump-sum payment and a royalty of 3 percent of net product sales.
After more litigation in 2008, Marvel said it would not pay Kimble royalties once the patent expired in 2010.
A federal judge ruled against Kimble, saying that the Supreme Court’s 1964 ruling in Brulotte v. Thys Co. meant royalties need not be paid. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed.
Kimble is asking the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling, saying it “has not withstood the test of time. Other competition law decisions from that era have been updated by this court in light of a keener awareness of economics and real world business circumstances.”
The case is Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises.