In July 2003, Evan Miller and Colby Smith killed Cole Cannon by beating Cannon with a baseball bat and burning his trailer. Cannon was inside. At the time, Miller was 14 years old. After Miller’s arrest, he was transferred from Lawrence County Juvenile Court to Lawrence County Circuit Court to be tried as an adult for capital murder. In 2006, a grand jury indicted Miller. At trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. The trial sentenced Miller to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Miller filed a post-trial motion for a new trial. He argued that the sentencing of a 14-year-old defendant to life without the possibility of parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The trial judge denied the motion. Miller appealed to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Court of Alabama denied Miller’s petition for writ of certiorari.
There was a companion case in whih the petitioner was also 14 years old at the time. He had robbed a local movie store in Blytheville, Ark., which led to the murder of the store clerk. There were three boys involved; all were 14 years old at the time. After a trial for the murder of the store clerk, one defendant was tried and convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery. The trial court sentenced him to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
In January 2008, he filed petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus. He argued that his sentence was unusual and excessive, violating his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court of Arkansas affirmed the lower court’s decision.
The issue in these two companion cases was: Does the imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a 14-year-old child violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments’ prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment?
In a five to four decision, the U.S. Supreme Court answered the question yes. Justice Elena Kagan reversed the Arkansas and Alabama Supreme Courts’ decisions and remanded the cases to their respective trial courts. The Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment forbids the mandatory sentencing of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders. Children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes. The Supreme Court held that while a mandatory life sentence of an adult would not violate the Eighth Amendment, such a sentence would be unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for children.
This case and the court’s decision has become the cornerstone of the movement in Cook County to reform the juvenile justice detention system. Too often Cook County juveniles are tried as adults and sentenced to excessively long sentences because of the court’s finding that they should be tried as adults. In Cook County it is estimated that 40% of the youth population in detention at this time are facing adult trials and penalties, including mandatory imprisonment.
It is well-documented and researched that the neuroscience supports the notion that a juvenile should be handled differently than adults in the criminal justice system. There are many organizations that are dedicated to promoting juvenile justice in a way that promotes improving outcomes for juveniles who have committed crimes. It is believed that the Cook County juvenile justice system is in transition for the better.
A new administrator of the juvenile justice system is about to be appointed. For the last 12 years the federal district court in Chicago has been supervising the Cook County juvenile justice system. With a new administrator soon to be appointed and perhaps in keeping with the Supreme Court’s decisions in these companion cases, it is hoped that the way juveniles are treated in the Cook County justice system will soon be reformed.
Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012).
Robert Kreisman has been practicing trial law in Chicago for more than 38 years. He serves as the chair of the subcommittee Administration of Justice and is a member of the Public Affairs Committee of the Union League Club of Chicago. Kreisman is also a member of the Public Affairs Committee of the Chicago Bar Association.
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