Two and a half years has passes since the U.S Supreme court, on June 25, 2012, ruled in Miller V. Alabama, that juveniles convicted of homicide that occurred before the age of (18) cannot be automatically sentenced to life without a chance at parole ( LWOP). This ruling in essence struck down the First Degree murder Statute in the state of Missouri, which only has two penalties; mandatory ( LWOP) or the death penalty.
The landmark ruling was based on the premise that juveniles have a lessened culpability and a heightened capacity for change. The Court noted that adolescents are marked by their transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequence, all factors that should mitigate the punishment received by juvenile defendants.
U.S Supreme Court Justice Kagan cited the 2010 Graham V. Florida decision, Which emphasized not only the immaturity of Juvenile offenders, but their chances for rehabilitation. “Mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.” The Court previously held that while there are a “few incorrigible juvenile offenders, (many) have the capacity for change.”
The court went on to note that the life experience of those individuals vary, but they are often marked by very difficult upbringings with frequent exposure to violence and they were often victims of abuse themselves.
This remarkable change in the law forced the Missouri Supreme Court to come in compliance with Miller. In State v. Ledale Nathan, No.SC92979 (2013) and State v. Laron Hart, No.SC93153 (2013) , the court set forth a new two stage sentencing process for those juveniles whose appeals are not yet final, that is those whose appeals that had not become final before Miller was decided.
The new sentencing process involved a sentencing hearing before a jury. At which time the defendant is allowed to present mitigating evidence and the prosecution may offer aggravating evidence if there is any. At the conclusion of the hearing the jury must determine if (LWOP) is the appropriate punishment for the particular defendant. If the jury rejects (LWOP) the court will declare First Degree Murder unconstitutional for that particular defendant. The defendants charges will then be reduced to Second Degree Murder. The jury will then determine a sentence ranging from 10-30 years, or life with parole. That does not in any way preclude juveniles from being resentenced to (LWOP) as long as the sentence is imposed through individual review as described above rather than as a result of a mandatory statute.
The new change in the law has however left the (84) defendants who are currently serving life without parole without the benefit of new sentencing process. While the Missouri Supreme Court had the opportunity to address the issue in Nathan and Hart, the court clearly indicated that it would leave the question for another day. This made very little sense and left all parties involved and baffled.
What many people do not know is that the majority of the (84) individuals whose lives are hanging in limbo have been serving (LWOP) for at least (20) years. By closely analyzing this span of time it takes all of the guess-work out of determining whether a particular person is incorrigible or for to return to society. The Court, prosecutors, and lawyers have the ability to look at each individual case under a microscope, Now consider Nathan and Hart hadn’t even begun to serve their new sentence. There wasn’t record to review in order to determine if they demonstrated a pattern of change. Hart continues to wait resentencing.