Oral argument: March 20, 2012
Appealed from: Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals (Aug. 27, 2010)
Petitioner, 14-year-old Evan Miller, was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced by an Alabama state court to life in prison without parole. Miller appealed his conviction arguing that it violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Miller points to the Supreme Court cases Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida, which held that a minor cannot be sentenced to death and that a minor cannot be imprisoned for life for a non-homicidal crime, respectively, as evidence that his conviction contravenes nationally held standards of decency. In response, the state of Alabama argues that Roper and Graham are factually distinct from this case and that national standards of decency support sentencing a minor to life imprisonment without parole for certain extreme crimes. The Supreme Court in this case will address moral and doctrinal questions about where the American legal system draws the line in punishing adolescents.
Does imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a 14-year-old child convicted of homicide violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments’ prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments?
Does such a sentence violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments when it is imposed upon a 14-year-old child as a result of a mandatory sentencing scheme that categorically precludes consideration of the offender’s young age or any other mitigating circumstances?
Whether sentencing a 14-year-old to life in prison without parole is cruel and unusual punishment?
On the night of July 15, 2003, when Petitioner Evan Miller was 14 years old, he beat and robbed his neighbor Cole Cannon. Late that evening, Cannon had arrived at Miller’s home looking for food. While Cannon was there, Miller and his co-defendant, Colby Smith, went to Cannon’s trailer in search of drugs. When Miller and Smith found none, they stole Cannon’s baseball cards and went back to Miller’s home.
Later in the evening, Miller and Smith, again, went to Cannon’s trailer. Cannon fell unconscious as a result of smoking and drinking, at which point Miller took $300 and Cannon’s driver’s license from Cannon’s wallet. As Miller put the wallet back in Cannon’s pocket, Cannon regained consciousness and attacked Miller. Smith hit Cannon with a bat, and Miller struck Cannon repeatedly with the bat and his fists. The co-defendants covered Cannon with a sheet and left his trailer. Shortly thereafter, the co-defendants returned to Cannon’s trailer and attempted to clean up the blood left from the fight. Ultimately, Miller and Smith decided to set fire to the trailer to conceal the crime while Cannon was still alive.
Firefighters responded to the fire, and investigators described the fire situation as “obviously suspicious.” Investigator Tim Sandlin interviewed Miller and read him the proper juvenile Miranda rights. After initially denying all wrongdoing, Miller signed a statement about the night’s occurrences in which he stated that he had stolen the money and driver’s license after a fight with Cannon but had not set the fire. Investigators then performed an additional investigation of Cannon’s trailer and an additional full autopsy of Cannon. The second full autopsy affirmed that Cannon’s death was a result of smoke inhalation, but added that Cannon’s death was also due to “multiple blunt force injuries and ethanol intoxication.”
A jury trial subsequently found Miller guilty of capital murder in the course of arson and gave him the mandatory sentence of life without parole. Miller’s counsel moved for a new trial arguing that Miller’s sentence to life without parole violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. After the Circuit Court’s denial of the motion, Miller appealed to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, challenging both the constitutionality of sentencing a 14-year-old to life without parole and the mandatory imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a 14-year-old. Reasoning that the seriousness of Miller’s capital murder crime warranted life without parole, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals held that Miller’s conviction was not unconstitutional, despite Miller’s age.
Following the finding by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, Miller’s application for rehearing was denied, as was Miller’s petition for certiorari to the Alabama Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari on November 7, 2011, and scheduled Miller’s case to be argued in tandem with Jackson v. Hobbs.
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether sentencing a 14-year-old to life in prison without parole violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments’ prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Petitioner Evan Miller argues that to sentence a 14-year-old to life without parole without considering mitigating factors, such as the defendant’s age, violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments’ ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In opposition, Alabama argues that punishing a 14-year-old to life without parole does not violate the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendment, but rather serves justifiable penological goals when the crime committed is aggravated murder.
Culpability of 14-year-olds
In support of Miller, the American Psychological Association (“APA”) and others argue that youths must not be sentenced to life without parole because they are less developed and therefore, less culpable than adults. In particular, the APA argues that youths are inherently less culpable than adults based on differences in neurological development. The APA contends that studies demonstrate that youths are particularly prone to engage in, and are vulnerable to, high-risk situations. The APA maintains that the part of a youth’s brain responsible for judgment and impulse control does not communicate in balance, as an adult’s would, and therefore does not give juveniles the same degree of control over their behavior.
Alabama argues that a 14-year-old is no less culpable than a 15-, 16-, or 17-year-old, all of whom may also receive life-without-parole sentences. Alabama asserts that any issue of diminished culpability is mitigated by the fact that the death penalty is not available for young offenders, such as Miller. In support of Alabama, the National District Attorneys Association argues that the issue of diminished culpability is even further mitigated by the fact that prosecutors exercise caution, often considering age, when deciding which juveniles to charge with life-without-parole sentences. Lastly, to directly refute Miller’s argument, Alabama contends that there is no research to support the argument that a 14-year-old has a lesser capacity for exercising sound judgment then an older adolescent criminal.
Penological Interests at Stake
A group of former Juvenile Court Judges argue that Miller’s sentence of life without parole must be reconsidered given the unique ability of youth to rehabilitate following a criminal act. Specifically, the former judges argue that while serving their sentence, many youths are able to benefit from prison educational and personal development opportunities. The judges acknowledge that while it is impossible to predict a youth’s ability to reform at the time of sentencing, at a very minimum, juvenile offenders should be given the opportunity to prove their aptitude for rehabilitation and reform. The judges argue that sentencing juvenile offenders to a term of years, rather than to life without parole, allows society to reassess a juvenile’s attempts at rehabilitation in coming years. The judges further claim that sentencing a youth to life without parole actually provides disincentives to the youth to attempt to reform both because of an obvious lack of hope and because those sentenced to life without parole often have limited access to prison vocational and self-help programs.
In contrast, Alabama argues that sentencing a 14-year-old to life without parole serves justifiable penological aims. In particular, the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers (“NOVJL”) claims that life-without-parole sentences are necessary for aggravated murder because the punishment both expresses society’s condemnation of the act and provides peace of mind for the victims’ families. The NOVJL further argues that the Court must not allow a complete ban on sentencing juveniles to life without parole because such a ban would unnecessarily result in the victim or victim’s family being unable to obtain final resolution because of the fear the juvenile could someday be paroled and cause further harm. The National District Attorneys Association adds that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is an appropriate punishment for juveniles that commit only the most horrendous crimes, like Miller.
The parties chiefly disagree over whether sentencing a 14-year-old to life in prison without parole violates the Eighth Amendment. Whether a practice, such as imposing mandatory life-without-parole sentences on 14-year-olds, violates the Eighth Amendment depends in part on whether there is a national consensus against the practice. The parties’ debate centers on differing interpretations of the Supreme Court cases of Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida, the former of which held that minors cannot be sentenced to the death penalty and the latter of which held that minors cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses. Petitioner Evan Miller notes that both Roper and Graham held that harsh sentences applied to minors violated the Eighth Amendment; Miller argues that these cases stand for the proposition that juveniles should receive different treatment than adults in sentencing, and that a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for a 14-year-old is exactly the kind of sentence Roper and Graham prohibit. Conversely, Alabama argues that Roper and Graham stand for the proposition that Eighth Amendment jurisprudence should be predicated on widely accepted sentencing practices, and that a life-without-parole sentence for a 14-year-old conforms to national norms and evolving standards of decency.
Do the facts of Roper and Graham control this case?
Petitioner Evan Miller draws a direct comparison between the adolescents in Roper and Graham and himself. Miller notes that Roper and Graham begin with the “settled premise” that adolescents cannot be held to the same standard of moral culpability as adults because adolescents are “unfinished products” who have not yet developed full moral capacities. According to Miller, this lack of development stems from both physiological and social factors: adolescents are subject to peer pressure and lack legal and economic independence; they are “flooded by the hormonal surges of puberty” making them ill-equipped to deal with urges to engage in risky behavior; and they are put at a disadvantage in the adversarial criminal justice system due to their inexperience and mistrust of adults. Miller emphasizes the particularly adverse conditions of his own upbringing, noting that he was raised in an abusive household and lacked positive role models growing up. According to Miller, he fits squarely into the category of individuals the Court was trying to protect in Roper and Graham, and a sentence that condemns him to life in prison directly contravenes the Court’s holding in those cases.
Respondent Alabama responds by distinguishing the facts of both Roper and Graham; according to Alabama, this case is not simply “Graham and Roper redux.” Rather, Alabama argues, this case involves a more lenient sentence than the one at issue in Roper and a more serious crime than the one at issue in Graham. Thus, according to Alabama, this case occupies a gap in Eighth Amendment doctrine that neither case controls. Alabama asserts that Miller has misinterpreted the logic of Graham in arguing that its facts control this case; while Miller has focused exclusively on Graham’s directive to consider the age of the offender, Alabama notes that Graham instructs courts to consider both the age of the offender and the characteristics of the defendant’s crime.
Does Sentencing a Minor to Life Without Parole Conform to National Standards of Decency?
In the event that Roper and Graham are too factually distinct to control this case directly, the parties also disagree as to whether Miller’s life sentence without parole conforms to nationally held standards of decency. Petitioner Evan Miller argues that such a sentence is repugnant to these standards. Miller points primarily to three sources as support for his argument: psychological studies of adolescent behavior, legislative history distinguishing adolescents from adults, and actual sentencing practices in the courts. First, Miller appeals to the “scientific consensus” that adolescents’ inherent biological and hormonal qualities differentiate them from adults in terms of moral culpability. According to Miller, this consensus reflects what “any parent knows” about adolescents’ lack of emotional development. Second, Miller cites legislative history that distinguishes between adolescents and adults as evidence of a “broad consensus” that adolescents are generally different from adults. Specifically, Miller cites law dealing with marriage, sex, tattoos, child labor, and education as evidence of this consensus. Third, Miller argues that the “actual sentencing practices” of juries supports the consensus that sentencing a minor to life in prison without parole is repugnant to widely held American values.
Respondent Alabama argues in response that, contrary to Miller’s suggestion, contemporary values actually support the imposition of a life-without-parole sentence for a minor. Alabama, like Miller, points to a wide variety of sources as evidence for this claim, including legislative history, sentencing practices, and scientific studies of adolescent psychology. First, Alabama provides a list of thirty-nine American jurisdictions that have instituted life-without-parole sentences for 14-year-olds and twenty-seven jurisdictions that make this the mandatory minimum sentence for certain crimes. Alabama argues that these statutes provide strong evidence of a societal judgment that some crimes are so repugnant that life without parole is an appropriate sentence, even when the defendant is only 14 years old. According to Alabama, this legislative evidence of sentencing statutes is the only kind of law relevant to the analysis. Alabama also asserts that scientific research on adolescent psychology refutes Miller’s claim that adolescents are biologically distinct from adults. Specifically, Alabama cites to a study that suggests that a tendency towards violence as an adolescent will tend to persist into adulthood. Alabama also argues that while some scientific studies may indicate differences between adolescents and adults, these differences are not “categorical” and should not preclude adolescents from facing equivalent standards of culpability. Certainly, according to Alabama, nothing approaching a “consensus” exists in the scientific community as to whether adolescents are inherently unfit to conform to the same standards applied to adults.
Miller argues that sentencing a minor to life in prison without parole is especially problematic when the sentence is mandatory and does not allow a jury to consider the defendant’s age. According to Miller, studying the sentencing practices of juries sheds light on whether a mandatory sentence accords with the generally accepted practices of the citizenry. Miller points to the fact that there have been only seventy-nine minors sentenced to life in prison without parole since 1970, only eight of whom were given this sentence based on the jury’s discretion. According to Miller, this evidence strongly suggests that juries are almost universally opposed to imposing such a severe sentence on a minor.
Alabama responds by arguing that, in relative terms, this seemingly small number of life sentences does not indicate a rarely accepted practice because very few juveniles commit homicidal crimes in the first place. Alabama further notes that many states with life-without-parole sentences for juveniles make such a sentence mandatory for certain serious crimes, which Alabama asserts both demonstrates that such punishments represent a national consensus and explains why so many minors with a life-without-parole sentence received their sentence through a mandatory statute. Finally, Alabama points out that no juvenile receives a truly mandatory sentence because courts may always conduct a case-by-case review to determine whether a sentence violates the Eighth Amendment, regardless of the statutory minimum sentence.
The Supreme Court will decide whether a state may constitutionally sentence a 14-year-old convicted of aggravated murder to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole, filling a possible gap left by Graham and Roper. This raises wide-reaching moral and doctrinal questions about where American law should draw the line in sentencing a minor to lifetime imprisonment. Petitioner Evan Miller and Respondent Alabama disagree about whether a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole violates the Eight Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment by violating national standards of decency. This decision may discourage minors sentenced to life without parole from attempting to rehabilitate, but may also more effectively deter violent crime.
Prepared by: Alison Carrizales and Tom Schultz
Edited by: Eric Schulman
Youth Today, John Kelly: Supreme Court Again Takes Up Juvenile Life Without Parole (Nov. 7, 2011).
New York Times, Adam Liptak: Justices Will Hear 2 Cases of Life Sentences for Youths (Nov. 7, 2011).
The Christian Post, Brendan Giusti: Supreme Court Ruling on Whether Life Sentences for Juveniles are Constitutional (March 2, 2012).
Los Angeles Times, David G. Savage: Supreme Court to Weigh Juveniles’ Life Sentences without Parole (Nov. 8, 2011).