The Arkansas Supreme Court today did as a U.S. Supreme Court ruling required and ordered a new sentencing hearing in Mississippi County for Kuntrell Jackson, sentenced to life in prison without parole when he was 14 as an accomplice to a cousin who killed a store attendant.
When Jackson was convicted of capital murder, the law required a mandatory life sentence without parole. Since then, the Supreme Court has held that to be cruel and unusual punishment in the case of juveniles. The court said the mandatory sentence prohibited a judge or jury from assessing whether the harshest sentence “proportionally punishes a juvenile offender” and prevents the sentencer from taking into account age and factors relevant to age.
In Jackson’s case, the court said, his age could have been a factor in assessing the risk of being an accomplice to someone who had a weapon in a robbery and his family background could also have been considered.
The Supreme Court rejected the state’s argument that Jackson could still be sentenced to life. It didn’t overturn the mandatory sentencing for all convicted of capital murder, but did strike down portions of the law as it pertains to juveniles and said they may be sentenced for capital murder only as provided for Class Y felonies, which carry a minimum penalty of 10 years in prison and a maximum of 40. Correction: Or also life, I’m now informed, an option left open at sentencing, but only after hearing mitigating circumstances related to age.
The Arkansas court ordered a hearing for Jackson in Mississippi County, where the crime occurred, at which Jackson can present evidence about his age and the nature of his crime. Jackson’s case was one of those that led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Also Thursday, the court, citing the Jackson case, sent another person sentenced to life without parole in Pulaski County as a juvenile, Lemuel Whiteside, back for a new sentencing hearing. He was 17 and an accomplice in a 2009 robbery slaying.
Arkansas has 57 people serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. Other states have faced the same dilemma. In Iowa, the governor commuted all those affected to 60-year terms. Gov. Mike Beebe had said earlier he’d leave the resentencing decisions to prosecutors.