The Supreme Court in Washington, where challenges to the health care law are being considered. (Getty Images)
By RAJU CHEBIUM
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Juveniles convicted of murder can't be automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The 5-4 ruling, involving two 14-year-olds convicted in separate robberies in Alabama and Arkansas, struck down 29 state laws that impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juvenile murder defendants.
Forcing judges and juries to give life without parole, regardless of mitigating circumstances, violates Supreme Court rulings requiring "individualized sentencing for defendants facing the most serious penalties," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.
"We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments,' " she wrote.
The court didn't issue a blanket ban on life without parole for juvenile murder defendants. Judges and juries can still impose that sentence as long as all factors such as the juvenile's upbringing are taken into account. But the ruling would make such sentences extremely rare.
The nation's highest court has invoked the Eighth Amendment in banning the death penalty for juveniles. Also banned are life-without-parole terms for juveniles who commit crimes other than murder. Now juveniles convicted of murder are also included under the Eighth Amendment umbrella, though the court didn't shut the door entirely on that sentence.
Joining Kagan in the majority were Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The dissenters were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, who argued that it's not the court's job to decide the appropriate punishment for juveniles convicted of murder.
"Neither the text of the Constitution nor our precedent prohibits legislatures from requiring that juvenile murderers be sentenced to life without parole," Roberts wrote in the dissenting opinion.
Evan Miller of Alabama was 14 when he and an accomplice robbed a neighbor, bludgeoned him with a baseball bat and burned his trailer in 2003. A Lawrence County, Ala., jury convicted him of murder for killing Cole Cannon, 52.
In the Arkansas case, Kuntrell Jackson was 14 when he took part in a 1999 video-store robbery in which the clerk was shot and killed by someone else.
Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery legal-rights group that represented Miller and Jackson, lauded the ruling as "an important win for children."
"The court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don't allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change," said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
About 2,500 prisoners nationwide are serving life-without-parole sentences for murders committed before they turned 18, according to Roberts. A majority of them are serving mandatory life terms with no chance of getting out of prison. Some or all of them may ask to be sentenced again.
Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman said the ruling clearly requires states to revise sentencing guidelines for juveniles who commit murder if life without parole is the only punishment allowed.
In light of the ruling, Miller and Jackson will seek to be sentenced again. But it's unclear if the ruling applies to others convicted of murder as juveniles who are serving mandatory life-without-parole sentences, Neiman cautioned.
"The actual impact of the decision in terms of practical reality is going to be a question that's going to be litigated," he said. "The opinion did not define ... whether this new rule of sentencing, under the Constitution, will apply to defendants whose convictions are already final."