Politics

SCOTUS To Reconsider Life Sentences For Juvenile Offenders

| by Meg O'Connor

Over fifty years ago, then-17-year-old Henry Montgomery was sentenced to life without parole for committing murder. Now, his lawyer is arguing for his second chance at freedom before the Supreme Court.

On Oct. 12, the Supreme Court heard arguments that could change the fate of some 2,000 convicted juvenile murderers, CNN reports. Montgomery's lawyers argued that the Supreme Court should apply the decision they made in the case of Miller v. Alabama retroactively to the cases of juvenile murderers sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

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Miller v. Alabama was a 2012 Supreme Court ruling which held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders is a violation of the Constitution.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority in the Miller v. Alabama decision, said that "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," according to CNN.

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Montgomery's lawyers argue that even though he committed murder as a teenager long before the 2012 ruling, the case should retroactively apply to him. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Montgomery, the decision  would not only lead to a new sentencing hearing for Montgomery, who is now 69 years old, but it could also result in a radical overhaul in the thousands of cases just like Montgomery's.

"Mr. Montgomery remains incarcerated based upon a constitutionally disproportionate sentence that could not be imposed today," Mark Plaisance, one of Montgomery's lawyer, argued in court filings, according to CNN.

Yet before the Supreme Court can decide whether the Miller decision could apply to Montgomery, the justices must decide whether the court even has the authority to hear the case. On Oct. 12, a number of justices raised serious questions regarding their jurisdiction.

Though all of the parties before the court (the state of Louisiana, the federal government, and Montgomery himself) believe the Supreme Court does indeed have the jurisdiction to hear the case, prior to the oral arguments, the Supreme Court justices appointed Richard D. Bernstein, a third party attorney, to play devil's advocate.

Bernstein claimed that the justices do not have jurisdiction to hear the opinion handed down by the Louisiana Supreme Court because, according to Bernstein, the retroactivity question is governed by state law, not federal law.

Marsha Levick, another one of Montgomery's lawyers, has pointed out that hundreds of similar juvenile offenders have already been allowed to be resentenced in states where lower courts have changed the law or have allowed it to be applied retroactively, NPR reports.

The issue has yet to be decided.

Sources: CNN, NPR

Photo credit: Wikimedia, Josh/Flickr