Miller v. Alabama

Most people were disappointed that the Supreme Court did not release the health care ruling on Monday. I, on the other hand, was excited to read Miller v. Alabama, a case with important sentencing ramifications for many states, including North Carolina. In Miller, the Court held 5–4 that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life without parole (LWOP) for a defendant less than 18 years of age at the time of his or her crime, even when the crime of conviction is murder.

Miller was decided in tandem with another case, Jackson v. Hobbs. Both defendants were 14 years old at the time of their offense. To summarize the facts of each case briefly, Evan Miller and another boy killed a neighbor by repeatedly striking him over the head with a baseball bat and then lighting his trailer on fire. The other case, which originated out of Arkansas, involved the botched robbery of a video store by Kuntrell Jackson and two other boys, one of whom had a sawed-off shotgun. When the store clerk refused to give the boys any money and threatened to call the police, the boy with the gun shot and killed her. Both defendants were charged as adults as a matter of prosecutorial discretion. Miller was convicted of murder in the course of arson; Jackson was convicted of felony murder and aggravated robbery. In both Alabama and Arkansas, the only permissible sentence for a young person convicted of those crimes was life without parole, and that is the sentence each boy received. Both defendants argued on appeal that the sentence was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court agreed (mostly), with Justice Kagan writing for a five-Justice majority. Justice Breyer wrote a concurring opinion. Four Justices dissented.

The Court drew from two distinct strands of precedent to decide that sentencing schemes that require life in prison without parole for juvenile offenders convicted of murder—without any opportunity for the sentencer to consider a lesser punishment—violate the Eighth Amendment. The first strand of cases adopted categorical bans on certain sentencing practices for certain types of offenders. It includes Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988) (barring capital punishment for defendants under the age of 16); Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) (barring capital punishment mentally retarded defendants); Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (barring capital punishment for defendants under 18); Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008) (barring capital punishment for nonhomicide crimes against individuals); and, most recently, Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. __ (2010) (barring a sentence of life without parole for nonhomicide crimes committed by defendants under 18, discussed here). The second strand of cases prohibited sentencing schemes that include mandatory imposition of capital punishment for certain crimes, requiring individualized consideration of the particular defendant before the death penalty may be imposed. Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976).

A theme that emerges from the first strand of cases is that young defendants are different from adults. The things that make them different turn out to be important for thinking about how to fix North Carolina’s laws in light of this case, so I want to set them out in bullet points.

  • First, because of their lack of maturity, children are reckless, impulsive, and risk-taking;
  • Second, children are vulnerable to negative influences (i.e., peer pressure) and have limited control over their environment; and
  • Third, a child’s character is not fully formed, so he or she is less likely to be deemed beyond rehabilitation based on a crime committed at an early age.

In light of those characteristics—which the Court said are increasingly well-documented as a matter of “brain science”—Justice Kagan wrote that the traditional purposes of sentencing don’t work the same when applied to young defendants. As such, when a sentencing authority isn’t permitted to even consider a defendant’s youth before imposing a sentence as serious as life without parole, the punishment is cruel and unusual.

Miller and Jackson argued for a categorical prohibition (like Roper and Graham) on LWOP for youthful defendants, or at least for defendants as young as 14, but what the Court gave them was really more Woodson-like. Woodson struck North Carolina’s capital punishment system in the 1970s because it made the death penalty mandatory for any defendant convicted of first-degree murder. The Woodson Court said that a system that gave no significance to the character of the defendant or the circumstances of the offense could not pass constitutional muster. In Miller the Court adopted a similar approach, holding that LWOP is a permissible punishment (i.e., it is not categorically barred, as was reported in some media outlets), but only after the sentencer has taken into account the “offender’s age and the wealth of circumstances attendant to it.” Slip op. at 14. Even though the Court expressly declined to consider the categorical ban requested by the defendants, it said that once states adopted appropriate non-mandatory sentencing regimes consistent with its ruling in Miller, “occasions for sentencing juveniles to [LWOP] will be uncommon.” Id. at 17. Jurisdictions are thus on notice that the individualized consideration of youth required by Miller is no mere formality.

Chief Justice Roberts authored the principal dissent, joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito. He said that the majority’s holding was a departure from Eighth Amendment precedent in that the sentences at issue could not really be characterized as “unusual”; the parties all agreed that over 2,000 prisoners were serving mandatory LWOP sentences for murders committed before they turned 18. In the past, Eighth Amendment jurisprudence called for consideration of “objective indicia of society’s standards as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice.” Here, 28 states and the federal government have mandatory LWOP for certain homicides. He took issue with the majority’s claim that the prevalence of LWOP sentences was largely the by-product of an unintended confluence of two distinct legislative enactments: mandatory (or effectively mandatory) transfers from juvenile to adult court and mandatory sentencing laws for adults. Maybe he could buy such legislative inattentiveness in Graham, where the number of juvenile LWOP sentences for nonhomicide crimes actually imposed was very low (123 prisoners) notwithstanding the fact that 39 states allowed the punishment. After wondering whether the Court should “ever assume a legislature is so ignorant of its own laws that it does not understand that two of them interact with each other,” the Chief Justice said that at a minimum a sentence being served by over 2,000 prisoners should not be characterized as a “collateral consequence of legislative ignorance.” He concluded by describing the progression from Roper to Graham to Miller as a “classic bait and switch,” and anticipated that the Court’s limitation on LWOP in Miller could evolve into a categorical prohibition before too long.

Justice Thomas and Justice Alito also wrote separate dissents. Justice Thomas questioned the majority’s blending of the two lines of cases described above—in addition to questioning each one separately as a matter of consistency with the original understanding of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. Justice Alito wrote critically of the Court’s inconsistency when tallying state laws as an objective measure of society’s standards.

Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Sotomayor, concurred in the majority opinion in full but wrote separately to note that Jackson’s case is different from Miller’s. Because Jackson did not pull the trigger himself and was convicted under a felony murder theory, there was no express determination that he killed or intended to kill the victim. As such, Justice Breyer noted that on remand LWOP might be prohibited under Graham. 560 U.S. at __ (categorically prohibiting LWOP for juvenile defendants who “did not kill or intend to kill”).

Much has already been written about Miller. Professor Tamar Birckhead at UNC Law School has written about the case on her new Juvenile Justice Blog and Sentencing Law and Policy has extensive and helpful coverage. Without question the case presents some difficult issues for North Carolina. Statutes will need to be amended to make them Miller-compliant, and pending cases (and probably even some decided cases) will need to take the opinion into account. My next post will set out my thoughts about where we go from here.