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Juvenile Murderer’s 100-Year Sentence Tossed

CHICAGO (CN) - A man sentenced to 100 years in prison for a murder he committed at age 16 should be resentenced because of a landmark Supreme Court decision, a divided 7th Circuit ruled.

In 2001, 16-year-old Benard McKinley shot and killed a man in a Chicago park. It is unclear whether McKinley or one of his friends brought the gun. Regardless, the friend undoubtedly ordered McKinley to shoot the victim, and he did, according to court records.

McKinley was sentenced to two consecutive 50-year prison sentences for murder and for the use of a firearm to commit murder.

A decade later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juvenile murderers violates the Eight Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Although McKinley did not raise an Eighth Amendment claim in his state post-conviction petitions, the 7th Circuit found that Miller invalidates his sentence.

The Miller decision states, "We require [the sentencing judge] to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison."

But according to Monday's ruling written by Judge Richard Posner, "The sentencing judge in this case didn't do that. He said nothing to indicate that he considered the defendant's youth to have the slightest relevance to deciding how long to make the sentence."

McKinley's case, unlike Miller, does not involve a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

But, "such a long term of years (especially given the unavailability of early release)...[is] a de facto life sentence, and so the logic of Miller applies," Posner said, writing for the three-judge panel's majority.

Even before Miller, Supreme Court precedent indicated that a criminal's youth should be a consideration in sentencing.

"The judge in this case failed to do that. He said nothing to indicate that he thought the defendant's youth at all relevant to the sentence," Posner wrote. "The judge should have considered whether, in a situation of excitement, McKinley had the maturity to consider whether to obey his confederate's order, or was prevented by the circumstances from making a rational decision about whether to obey."

The Chicago-based appeals court cited the Illinois Supreme Court's 2014 decision in People v. Davis, where the state high court allowed the defendant to file a Miller claim because it had not been available to him at the time of his initial petition.

"McKinley like Davis had no opportunity to invoke Miller either in his direct appeal or in any of his state post-conviction proceedings," Posner said. "Miller speaks to the propriety of a life sentence for juveniles, and an Illinois court might well believe as do we that the sentencing judge in this case utterly failed to consider that 'children are different.'"

Judge Kenneth Ripple dissented, arguing that McKinley is barred from making an Eighth Amendment claim because he didn't raise it earlier.

"As the majority acknowledges, the 'children are different' statement in Miller has parallels 'in earlier Supreme Court cases,'" Ripple wrote. "'Children are different,' therefore, is not a new rule that justifies Mr. McKinley's failure to raise his Eighth Amendment claim in the state courts."

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