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Court strikes down mandatory life sentences without parole for young murderers

Updated at 2:25 pm ET The Supreme Court Monday struck down mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without parole for convicted murderers who were only 14 years old when they committed their crimes.

There are approximately 80 people nationwide who are serving such sentences for murders they committed when they were fourteen years old or younger.

The justices ruled that imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a fourteen-year old convicted of homicide violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.

The decision arose out of two cases, one from Arkansas and one from Alabama.

In each case, a 14-year-old offender was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

“State law mandated that each juvenile die in prison even if a judge or jury would have thought that his youth and its attendant characteristics, along with the nature of his crime, made a lesser sentence (for example, life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate,” noted Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the majority opinion for the court.

Kagan said that “a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.”

Requiring all children convicted of homicide to receive life in prison without possibility of parole, “regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes,” violates the principle of proportionality, and conflicts with the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Kagan said.

Monday’s ruling was not a surprise since the high court had already decided in cases in 2005 and 2010 that that the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment for children and that it also prohibits a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a child who committed a non-homicide offense.

In the Alabama case Evan Miller, 14 years old, killed an adult neighbor, Cole Cannon, while Miller, Cannon and another boy Colby Smith, were smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. Miller beat Cannon with a baseball bat and said “I am God, I’ve come to take your life.”

Miller and Smith then set Cannon’s trailer on fire to cover up their crime. After Cannon died from his injuries and smoke inhalation, Alabama charged Miller as an adult with murder in the course of arson.

Smith pleaded to a lesser offense and provided testimony that helped convict Miller.

“No one can doubt that he and Smith committed a vicious murder,” Kagan said. “But they did it when high on drugs and alcohol consumed with the adult victim. And if ever a pathological background might have contributed to a 14-year-old’s commission of a crime, it is here.”

She said Miller’s stepfather had abused him and “his alcoholic and drug-addicted mother neglected him; he had been in and out of foster care as a result” and had tried to kill himself four times.

In the accompanying case from Arkansas, a boy named Kuntrell Jackson, 14 years old, along with two other boys decided to rob a video store. In the course of that robbery, one of the other boys shot and killed the store clerk. Jackson was unarmed when the murder took place but was charged as an accessory.

Kagan’s opinion was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

In his dissent, Roberts wrote that “the only stopping point for the Court’s analysis would be never permitting juvenile offenders to be tried as adults.”

He also said that in recent years more and more states had moved toward requiring that “the murderer, his age notwithstanding, be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. Members of this Court may disagree with that choice.  Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again. But that is not our decision to make.”