The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that
all life without parole sentences for children violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and that all sentenced to mandatory life as children are entitled to case reviews, including retroactively.
Clarification: The court said a life sentence might be justified in cases in which a juvenile exhibits “irretrievable depravity.”
The ruling moots an Arkansas petition for the court to review the June 2015 Arkansas Supreme Court decision that had made it possible for persons who’d been sentenced to life without parole to ask for reviews of the sentences retroactively. (The Arkansas court, however, did not go so far as to say that a life-without-parole sentence should be eliminated for juveniles.)
Criminal defense lawyer Jeff Rosenzweig said reviews have begun for 55 Arkansas inmates who were convicted of capital murder as juveniles and sentenced to life without parole (the death penalty is not available for juveniles). He said today’s Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling by the U.S. court also includes language that may apply to inmates sentenced to life for first-degree murder. He is focusing on the capital murder sentences first, however.
In the 2014 General Assembly, then-Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) tried, but failed, to convince his fellow legislators to eliminate all life sentences for juveniles.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, which involved Arkansas inmate Kuntrell Jackson, that life sentences for juveniles were cruel and unusual and therefore unconstitutional. That sent Jackson’s case back to the state high court, which ruled in April 2013 that Jackson should be resentenced. Jackson was 14 when he was involved in a 1999 video store robbery in which a clerk was killed. He is now scheduled to be released on April 14, 2021.
In June 2015, the state high court decided unanimously to uphold a Lee County circuit judge’s ruling that overturned the sentence of Ulonzo Gordon, who at 17 was convicted of a 1995 murder in Crittenden County. Referring to the Jackson case, Justice Robin Wynne wrote in the Gordon case that “As it now stands, a juvenile offender sentenced to an unconstitutional mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole by the State of Arkansas has obtained a new sentencing hearing. It would be patently unfair to decline to do so for other prisoners who are similarly situated.”