Sotomayor Criticizes Life-Sentencing Scheme in Ohio

WASHINGTON (CN) – Justice Sonia Sotomayor flagged “serious constitutional concerns” Monday with a Ohio law that appears to block the courts from evaluating life sentences that offer no possibility of parole.

While parole eligibility is possible after 20, 25, or 30 years for some convicted in Ohio of aggravated murder, Section 2953.08(D)(3) of the Ohio Revised Code provides that sentences “imposed for aggravated murder or murder” are “not subject to review.”

An inmate facing such a sentence named Glenn Campbell challenged the scheme, but the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his appeal Monday without reaching the merits.

Sotomayor explained in an opinion respecting the denial of certiorari that “Campbell failed adequately to present his constitutional arguments to the state courts.”

But the failure of Campbell’s case to advance did not stop the Obama appointee from criticizing the Ohio law.

“Trial judges making the determination whether a defendant should be condemned to die in prison have a grave responsibility, and the fact that Ohio has set up a scheme under which those determinations ‘cannot be reviewed’ is deeply concerning,” she wrote. “Life without parole ‘is the second most severe penalty permitted by law.’ In recent years this Court has recognized that, although death is different, ‘life without parole sentences share some characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no other sentences.’

In the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, the high court noted that “imprisoning an offender until he dies alters the remainder of his life ‘by a forfeiture that is irrevocable.’”

“A life-without-parole sentence ‘means denial of hope; it means that good behavior and character improvement are immaterial; it means that whatever the future might hold in store for the mind and spirit of the convict, he will remain in prison for the rest of his days,’” that ruling continued, as quoted by Sotomayor.

Applying Eighth Amendment requirements, as one would for a death-penalty case, Sotomayor said there is “good reason to question whether §2953.08(D)(3) really ‘means what it says’: that a life-without-parole sentence, no matter how arbitrarily or irrationally imposed, is shielded from meaningful appellate review.”

“Our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence developed in the capital context calls into question whether a defendant should be condemned to die in prison without an appellate court having passed on whether that determination properly took account of his circumstances, was imposed as a result of bias, or was otherwise imposed in a ‘freakish manner,’” Sotomayor added. “And our jurisprudence questions whether it is permissible that Campbell must now spend the rest of his days in prison without ever having had the opportunity to challenge why his trial judge chose the irrevocability of life without parole over the hope of freedom after 20, 25, or 30 years. The law, after all, granted the trial judge the discretion to impose these lower sentences.

“This case did not present either the Ohio courts or this Court the occasion to decide this important question,” the opinion concludes. “I believe the Ohio courts will be vigilant in considering it in the appropriate case.”

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