WASHINGTON (CN) — Struggling over whether courts can legally define juveniles as beyond redemption, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on behalf of a teenage boy who killed his grandfather in 2004.
Justice Samuel Alito called the argument “fascinating.”
“You want to take us, and the courts of this country, into a very deep theological and psychological waters,” said Alito, who was appointed by president George H.W. Bush. “Do you think there are any human beings who are not capable of redemption?”
Redemption is a key word in the case because the attorney for Brett Jones says his client has been denied the possibility of parole despite no finding from the judge that he was “permanently incorrigible.”
David Shapiro, an attorney for Jones with the firm Roderick & Solange, insisted that there are many psychologists who “can and must verify and do testify” for courts that certain individuals are “permanently incorrigible.”
To this, however, Alito pointing to the teachings of both Gandhi and the Christian Bible.
“Think of Christians who say that, think of the good thief on the cross,” he said. “If the court has to determine whether this person or that person is capable of redemption, or they think every person is capable of redemption — what do you do with that?”
Jones’ attorney argued that the inquiry Tuesday was more about determining a person’s capacity for rehabilitation, and “what every judge needs to do in similar cases.”
“It’s not a theological conception,” Shapiro said. “It’s a determination of whether the defendant has the capacity to rehabilitate and not recidivate. And in the event the judge does make an error, and the person’s capacity to rehabilitate is never realized, they’re never getting out, they’re dying in prison — that decision is ultimately left up to the parole board.”
Shapiro said the analysis is straightforward: hear the criminal record before and after the crime, plus testimony about the perpetrator. Then “make a determination,” Shapiro said, “as to whether the defendant is going to recidivate or has the capacity to be rehabilitated.”
The Supreme Court has precedent on life sentences without parole. In the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama,the 5-4 court said such punishments cannot be mandatory for juveniles. And four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the 6-3 courtapplied thatholdingretroactively.
As Alito voiced concern Tuesday that the challenge by Jones could bring the court “light-years away from the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment,” Shapiro emphasized that the concept of permanent incorrigibility is part of the precedent.
“It stated it in Miller and restated it seven times in Montgomery as indispensable to have the holding and simply say that a court has to decide whether a defendant fits within a rule of law already down within this court. This is no journey at all,” he said.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett appeared skeptical, asking why the Eighth Amendment was not a sufficient protection.
“Why hasn’t it been the case that he’s better off not challenging the procedure but challenging the substantive decision that he is permanently incorrigible?” the Trump appointee asked.
Jones is 31 today but he killed his grandfather, Bertis Jones, when he was 15. The two had been arguing about a girlfriend that the teen had invited that day to visit the grandfather’s home in Lee County, Mississippi.
Taking the knife he had been using to make a sandwich, and grabbing another when that one bent, Jones stabbed the 68-year-old eight times in total. He also moved his grandfather’s car to cover blood that had pooled as he dragged the body to a utility room near the car port.
Deputy Solicitor General Krissy Nobile argued Tuesday that the state got its sentencing right for Jones, and that a specific finding on a juvenile’s permanent incorrigibility is unnecessary to issue a life sentence.
She said the state took care to consider factors like age and related characteristics, including that Brett Jones’ stepfather was abusive.
“On the whole, the sentencing court disagreed that youth and attendant characteristics diminish the penological justifications for a life-without-parole punishment,” she said. “The Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence and the state’s position is that the Mississippi Court of Appeals should be affirmed.”
A decision is expected to be issued next year.
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