Relief for Juvenile Killers Divides Supreme Court

     WASHINGTON (CN) — Two conservative justices voiced criticism Monday as the Supreme Court ordered trial courts to reconsider the life sentences imposed on five Arizona killers, all of whom were under 18 when they committed their crimes.
     Finding the sentences constitutional, the dissenting justices said precedent requires only that states do not make life-without-parole sentences mandatory for juvenile offenders.
     “A sentence of life without parole was imposed in each of these cases, not because Arizona law dictated such a sentence, but because a court, after taking the defendant’s youth into account, found that life without parole was appropriate in light of the nature of the offense and the offender,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.
     The Supreme Court struck down the mandatory sentencing scheme for juveniles in the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, and gave the holding retroactive effect just this past January in Montgomery v. Louisiana.
     Quoting Montgomery, which in turn quoted Miller, Alito emphasized the finding that “life without parole is excessive for all but ‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.'”
     “But the record in the cases at issue,” Alito added, “provides ample support for the conclusion that these ‘children’ fall into that category.”
     Going through each of the five cases whose dispositions the court summarily vacated this morning, Alito said all “are in the same vein.”
     “In Purcell v. Arizona, a 16-year-old gang member fired a sawed-off shotgun into a group of teenagers, killing two of them, under the belief that they had flashed a rival gang’s sign at him,” the dissent states.
     Before convicting Purcell of first-degree murder and other charges, Alito wrote, “the trial court considered his youth, identified his age as a mitigating factor, and still sentenced him to life without parole.”
     Justice Sonia Sotomayor laid out Purcell’s case different, however, in a brief opinion concurring in the decision to grant, vacate and remand.
     Though the sentencing judge found that Purcell’s age qualified as a statutory mitigating factor, “he then minimized the relevance of Purcell’s troubled childhood, concluding that ‘this case sums up the result of defendant’s family environment: he became a double-murderer at age 16. Nothing more need be said.'”
     Sotomayor said this proves that “the sentencing judge did not undertake the evaluation that Montgomery requires.”
     “He imposed a sentence of life without parole despite finding that Purcell was ‘likely to do well in the structured environment of a prison and that he possesses the capacity to be meaningfully rehabilitated,'” the opinion continues.
     Sotomayor said it is not enough “that the judges in these cases considered petitioners’ youth during sentencing.”
     “As Montgomery made clear, … ‘even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity,'” the opinion states.
     Making the same claim as Alito had, Sotomayor said each of the other cases that the court summarily vacated today has similar features.
     The opinions appear in connection to the case of Bobby Jerry Tatum, who committed a murder at age 17.
     “On the record before us, none of the sentencing judges addressed the question Miller and Montgomery require a sentencer to ask: whether the petitioner was among the very ‘rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,'” Sotomayor wrote.
     The defendants in Arias v. Arizona and in DeShaw v. Arizona were both 17 as well at the time of the murders they committed.
     In Najar v. Arizona, Sotomayor noted that the sentencing judge considered as mitigating factors this defendant’s age, 16, and his emotional and physical immaturity.
     “He said no more on this front,” the opinion states. “He then discounted the petitioner’s efforts to rehabilitate himself as ‘nothing significant,’ despite commending him for those efforts and expressing hope that they would continue. The sentencing judge did not evaluate whether Najar represented the ‘rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.'”
     Alito disagreed. “In short, the Arizona courts have already evaluated these sentences under Miller, and their conclusions are eminently reasonable,” he wrote. “It is not clear why this court is insisting on a do-over, or why it expects the results to be any different the second time around. I respectfully dissent.”
     Aside from summary dispositions, the court did not take up any new cases Monday. This morning’s order denies certiorari in dozens of cases.

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