Juvenile LWOP and the Supreme Court

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I was thinking about making today’s post a news roundup, since there’s been so much interesting criminal law news recently, including a rumor suggesting that Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson could be under consideration to replace Justice David Souter on the United States Supreme Court.  (More information about that here.)

But those plans were blown out of the water by the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in two cases related to a topic I just blogged about recently: the imposition of life-without-parole sentences on juvenile offenders.  My earlier post, referring to a California case, is here, and a New York Times story about the Supreme Court’s actions is here.

The very, very short version of the two cases is as follows: in Sullivan v. Florida, a thirteen-year-old with no substantial prior record was sentenced to life without parole after raping an elderly woman.  In Graham v. Florida, a seventeen-year-old with a prior criminal history was sentenced to life without parole after a home invasion robbery.  Lawyers for both defendants contend that the imposition of life sentences for juvenile defendants violates the Eighth Amendment’s guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment.

Obviously, I don’t know how these cases will turn out.  There’s some support for the defendants’ arguments in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the Court’s decision banning the death penalty for juveniles, but the Court has repeatedly emphasized that capital punishment is unique, so it might be a mistake to read too much into Roper.  Some commentators think that the two cases may turn out differently, with the thirteen-year-old offender winning relief but not the seventeen-year-old.  Interestingly, neither case involves a homicide, so a decision in favor of one or both defendants may leave open the question of whether LWOP may be imposed for juvenile murderers.

That last question — the constitutionality of LWOP for juvenile murderers — is the one of the most direct importance to North Carolina.  Although LWOP is theoretically available as an aggravated sentence for B2 felony defendants with prior record levels V and VI, its overwhelming use is as a sentence for Class A felonies, i.e., first-degree murder, and I’d be surprised if there were any North Carolina juveniles serving LWOP sentences for any other crimes.  Stay tuned for updates on Sullivan and Graham — and of course, an analysis of the impact of the eventual decisions on North Carolina practice.

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