LOCATION: San Diego Immigration Court
DOCKET NO.: 10-9646
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Alabama
CITATION: 567 US (2012)
GRANTED: Nov 07, 2011
ARGUED: Mar 20, 2012
DECIDED: Jun 25, 2012
Bryan A. Stevenson - for the petitioners
John C. Neiman Jr. - Solicitor General of Alabama, for the respondent
Kent G. Holt - for the respondent in the companion case
Facts of the case
In July 2003, Evan Miller, along with Colby Smith, killed Cole Cannon by beating Cannon with a baseball bat and burning Cannon's trailer while Cannon was inside. Miller was 14 years old at the time. In 2004, Miller was transferred from the Lawrence County Juvenile Court to Lawrence County Circuit Court to be tried as an adult for capital murder during the course of an arson. In 2006, a grand jury indicted Miller. At trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. The trial court sentenced Miller to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Miller filed a post trial motion for a new trial, arguing that sentencing a 14-year-old to life without the possibility of parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion. On appeal, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the lower court's decision. The Supreme Court of Alabama denied Miller's petition for writ of certiorari.
In the companion case, petitioner Kuntrell Jackson, along with Derrick Shields and Travis Booker, robbed a local movie store in Blytheville, Arkansas in November, 1999. The three boys were 14 years old at the time. While walking to the store, Jackson discovered that Shields was hiding a shotgun in his coat. During the robbery, Shields shot the store clerk and the three boys fled the scene. Jackson was tried and convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery in July, 2003. The trial court sentenced Jackson to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
In January 2008, Jackson filed a petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus in circuit court. He argued that his sentence was unusual and excessive, violating his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The circuit court dismissed the petition and Jackson appealed. The Supreme Court of Arkansas affirmed the lower court's decision.
Does the imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a fourteen-year-old child violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments' prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment?
Media for Miller v. Alabama
- Opinion Announcement - June 25, 2012 (Part 2)
- Opinion Announcement - June 25, 2012 (Part 1)
- Oral Argument - March 20, 2012
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 20, 2012 in Miller v. Alabama
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 25, 2012 (Part 2) in Miller v. Alabama
Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:
The Court today holds that neither Congress nor the state legislatures may identify any category of murderers under the age of 18 who must be sentenced to life imprisonment.
The decision thus goes far beyond the two carefully selected 14-year old petitioners whose cases are before us.
The Court could've limited its holding to minors under the age of 15 or for that matter, to minors under the age of 16 or 17 but it has not done so.
Think of the worst possible 17-year old murderer, perhaps a 17-year old who previously was convicted of several murders was tried in family court and has resisted any attempt at rehabilitation or think of a 17-year old or 17 and a half year old, perhaps, who goes to school and guns down a dozen or more teachers and students.
The opinion of the Court delicately refers to all murderers under the magic age of 18 as children and holds that every single one of these children must be given a chance to persuade a judge to impose a lesser sentence.
What is the Court's basis for doing this?
The Court says that it is simply enforcing the Eighth Amendment -- Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
And following our prior decisions, the Court says that the Eighth Amendment embodies “the evolving standards of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society”.
This mellifluous phrase embodies a particular philosophy of history, namely, that civilization is progressing inexorably toward ever higher standards of decency.
That philosophy is debatable and it is something of a mystery how it ever became part of our fundamental law, but the standard, as originally understood, had at least one virtue.
It called on judges to look to something other than their own personal views.
The Court emphasized again and again that it could not hold that a punishment is cruel and unusual just because the justices personally hold that view.
No, it was necessary to find what the Court called “objective indicia of society standards”.
So where can these objective indicia be found?
The Court toyed with the idea of looking to public opinion polls.
It occasionally surveyed the law of certain other highly evolved countries, but for the most part, what the Court did was to tally up the -- the positions taken by the legislatures of the 50 States.
If a particular punishment for a particular crime was challenged, the Court looked to see whether there was a strong consensus against imposing that punishment for that offense.
Thus, in Coker versus Georgia decided in 1976, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death sentence for the rape of an adult woman, and the Court noted that Georgia was the only State that allowed that punishment for that crime.
98% of the States took the opposing view.
As the years went by, however, the evidence of objective indicia got weaker and weaker and by the time when Graham versus Florida was decided by this Court two years ago, the search for objective indicia had become something of a farce.
In Graham, both Congress and the legislatures of 39 States permitted a minor convicted of certain non-homicide offenses to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, but the Court nevertheless held that that punishment is contrary to the Eighth Amendment.
22% of the States was now enough to constitute a consensus.
In today's case, as you just heard, a mere 29 state legislatures have proscribed the mandatory term for some sub 18-year old murderers, so the Court says, "Look, 29 is less than 39 so that must mean that there is a consensus in our society that a term of life for any murderer under the age of 18 is cruel and unusual.”
The Court is using some very strange dictionary in which a distinct minority of the States is enough to constitute a consensus.
The Court then says something even more remarkable, and you heard that argument today, it suggests that the legislatures of at least some of those 29 States do not actually realize what the law says in their own States.
And this is because in order to understand that, you would have to look at two separate laws.
One law says that certain minors may be tried as adults.
Another law says that offenders committed -- convicted of certain types of murder must be sentenced to life imprisonment.
So maybe the state legislatures simply can't put two and two together.
Of course, if this is the real problem, then the Court should be willing to overrule its decision in this case if enough state legislatures respond by passing resolutions saying, “You know what, we're really not that stupid, we really can't put two and two together, we know what our state law provides, and we think that for certain minors who commit murder, the only appropriate sentence is life.”