Supreme Court Upholds Life Sentence for Teen Killer

The justices rejected an appeal from a Mississippi man who was convicted of killing his grandfather when he was 15, finding his sentence of life without parole was within the judge’s discretion.

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Ruling against a Mississippi man convicted of murdering his grandfather in 2004 as a minor, the U.S. Supreme Court held Thursday in a 6-3 decision that his sentence of life in prison without parole did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Brett Jones was 15 when he killed his grandfather in 2004, but when sentenced to life without parole, the district court did not find Jones to be “permanently incorrigible.” After a ruling in Miller v. Alabama – another juvenile murder case involving a teenage boy in which the court held it violated the Eighth and 14th Amendments to sentence a juvenile to life without parole – Jones’ case was bounced back for resentencing from the state supreme court.

But the court again agreed with the state and upheld Jones’ life sentence. He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which also affirmed Thursday. The majority found the sentence was within the judge’s discretion.

“The Eighth Amendment permits a life-without-parole sentence for a defendant who committed a homicide when he or she was under 18, but only if the sentence is not mandatory and the sentencer therefore has discretion to impose a lesser punishment,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the majority. “A discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient.” 

Details in the opinion paint a gruesome picture of Jones’ crime. He was living with his grandfather Bertis Jones when he was discovered with his girlfriend in his bedroom early one August morning. A fight ensued and Bertis ordered Brett out of the house. Later that afternoon, the younger Jones stabbed his grandfather with a kitchen knife. When the first knife broke he picked up another and proceeded to finish his elderly relative off with a total of eight stab wounds. A neighbor witnessed some of the exchange and called the police. 

Jones’ attorney David Shapiro with the firm Roderick & Solange argued details of the murder should not have mattered. Instead, he pointed to the Miller decision as grounds for a reduced sentence and argued a juvenile must be ruled permanently incorrigible to get life without parole.

“In Jones’s view, a sentencer who imposes a life-without-parole sentence must also either make a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility, or at least provide an on-the-record sentencing explanation with an ‘implicit finding’ of permanent incorrigibility,” Thursday’s ruling states.

But Kavanaugh, a Donald Trump appointee, pointed to a related case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, which he said set the standard of permanently incorrigible, or incapable of reform. Montgomery, he wrote, specifically states a “a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility . . . is not required.”

“The court’s precedents require a discretionary sentencing pro­cedure in a case of this kind. The resentencing in Jones’s case complied with those precedents because the sentence was not mandatory and the trial judge had discretion to im­pose a lesser punishment in light of Jones’s youth,” Kavanaugh wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas went a step further. A dissenter on Miller and a strict originalist, the George H. W. Bush appointee noted the Constitution originally allowed the death penalty for minors and any shift from that standard is “another step ‘on the path to further judicial displacement of the legislative role in prescribing appropriate punishment for crime.’”

“Today’s judgment thus offers cold comfort to the states that have already faced the unenviable choice between ‘permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole’ and relitigating murder sentences long after the fact,” he wrote. 

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority’s opinion “would come as a shock” to the majorities that decided Miller and Montgomery, saying “such an abrupt break from precedent demands ‘special justification.’”

Quoting Miller, the Barack Obama appointee said “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing” and finding otherwise denies the science showing young minds are not developed enough to understand the consequences of their actions no matter how extreme. 

“Juvenile offenders ‘must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored,’” the liberal justice wrote, again citing Miller.

Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer joined Sotomayor in the dissent.

Besides Thomas, Kavanaugh was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.

In an emailed statement, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch said she was pleased with the decision that “upheld the constitutionality of Mississippi’s criminal sentencing system.”

“At its core, this case is about a state’s ability to craft the laws and procedures that reflect the will of its people,” she added.

Attempts to reach Shapiro, who argued on behalf of Jones at the high court last November, were not returned by press time. 

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