Juvenile Murderers: Is Life Without Parole Unconstitutional?

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The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a a case about whether life without parole for 13 or 14 year old offenders is constitutional

Edwin Desamour knows something about juveniles charged with murder. He was once one.

At 12 years old he was given his first gun and at 16 he was involved in a murder. "I was fortunate not to get life," he says. He grew up in prison, serving 8 and a half years, and he has now returned to his old Philadelphia neighborhood and is trying to prevent kids from making similar mistakes.

On Tuesday, Desamour will travel to the United States Supreme Court to hear the justices debate a subject they know well: the application of harsh penalties imposed on juvenile offenders who commit heinous crimes.

The court has already rejected the death penalty for juveniles (Roper v. Simmons 2005) , and it has said that juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses can no longer receive sentences of life without parole (Graham v. Florida 2010) . Now it will address whether juvenile murders --13 and 14 year olds--should receive sentences of life without parole.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote both Roper and Graham and he relied on scientific evidence regarding the development of children's brains.

In the Graham case Kennedy cited the "diminished moral culpability" of a juvenile who is often still maturing as an individual, and the prospect of rehabilitation as a factor in his ruling.

Desamour, who has founded a support group called "Men in Motion in the Community" to help at risk kids, believes that juveniles should be given a chance at parole because they can be rehabilitated.

Desamour recently returned to one of the prisons he used to call home, and he saw some of his friends--still serving. "It was heartbreaking," he says "We went in as kids. They are now getting grey hair."

Of his support group he says, "We are trying to do everything we can to prevent kids from making that one decision that could cost them the rest of their life."

He believes rehabilitation works. "Most definitely, people can change; it takes support, and guidance."

On Tuesday, the court will hear two cases regarding sentences of life without parole applied to offenders who were 14 years old at the time of the crime. One involves Evan Miller, who beat a neighbor and then set his trailer on fire so that the man burned to death. Miller's lawyers say their client was a victim of serious domestic abuse throughout his childhood.

The other case involves Kuntrell Jackson who was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for felony murder that occurred in 1999 less than three weeks after his 14th birthday. Jackson didn't pull the trigger, but he was charged as an adult.

Jackson's lawyers point out in court papers that life without parole homicide sentences for young teens are "vanishingly rare" and that juveniles are a "unique stage of development that makes them peculiarly susceptible to physical and psychological pressures toward risk-taking, and they are not yet adequately equipped with the capacity for mature behavioral controls."

In court papers Bryan A. Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, who is representing Jackson, argues that juveniles, especially of the age of 13 and 14 , are different from adults. He says they are "neurologically, hormonally, and emotionally hard-wired for sensation-seeking, impulsivity, poor foresight, worse judgment, and control failure," and they should have at least a chance at parole.

But it's an argument the attorney general of Arkansas is not buying.

In court briefs, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, representing the Arkansas Department of Corrections, offers more details of the crime committed. He points out that Jackson joined two other friends at a video store. One of the other juveniles had a sawed off .410 shotgun hidden in the sleeve of his coat . The boys asked the clerk, Laurie Troup, for money. When she denied having money Jackson told her, "We aint playin'." When she said she'd call the police, the juvenile shot her in the head and killed her. The boys fled--never taking any money.

Jackson's arrest record dated back from before he was 10 years old. A jury convicted him of aggravated robbery and capital-murder and he was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

McDaniel does not dispute the proposition that juveniles are less culpable than adults or that they tend to engage in risky behavior. But, he says, "Despite their tendency to be impulsive, engage in risky behavior, or be sensation-seeking, most juveniles do not commit violent crimes and only a minute fraction of them commit murder."

McDaniel adds there is no national consensus against the imposition of life without parole on 14-year-old homicide offenders. He points out that 38 states authorize such a penalty. 32 states authorize life without parole for non-triggerman-juvenile felony murderers.

"Legislatures, are entitled to conclude," McDaniel argues, "that those who commit homicide are deserving of the most serious forms of punishment, including life imprisonment without parole. "

There are currently 79 people in the United States serving life-without-parole sentences for homicide offense committed at age 13 or 14.