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SCOTUS Ruling on Juvenile Prison Terms Echoes Across Missouri

Supreme Court ruling on juvenile prison terms echoes across Missouri
TONY RIZZO, The Kansas City Star
PUBLICATION: Kansas City Star, The (MO)

SECTION: News

DATE: June 25, 2012
In a decision that could affect dozens of convicted Missouri killers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that mandating life in prison without parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional.

Though the 5-4 ruling does not entirely ban sentences to juveniles of life without parole, it found that judges or juries must be given the opportunity to consider mitigating factors before imposing what the court calls “the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.”

“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,” according to the court’s majority opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan. “Such mandatory penalties, by their nature, preclude a sentencer from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it.”

It is unclear how Missouri will implement the new rule, legal experts and scholars said.

Missouri has only two sentencing options for first-degree murder convictions: life without parole, or death.

The high court previously outlawed death sentences for juveniles.

“Now you can’t give either to a juvenile,” said Sean O’Brien, law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “The confusion created by this ruling needs to be dealt with in some way.”

Missouri has 84 inmates serving sentences of life without parole for crimes that occurred when they were 17 or younger, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Ten of those cases hail from Jackson County and two from Cass County.

They include the case of Reyes Olivas, now 18, who was sentenced in April in Cass County for killing his 14-year-old cousin, Katie Rios, in 2010.

Olivas, who was 16 at the time of the killing, stood trial as an adult and was found guilty of first-degree murder.

“While the Supreme Court’s ruling will impact the current sentence … it is important to note that Olivas’ conviction remains intact,” Cass County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley said in a written statement. “The Cass County prosecuting attorney’s office will continue to advocate for Katie Rios and her family in any sentencing proceedings that arise as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision.”

One of the Jackson County cases involves Eddie George, now 22. He was found guilty of first-degree murder for the 2006 killing of a friend’s mother in Grain Valley when he was 16.

“I’m hopeful this ruling will apply to Eddie,” said Kansas City defense attorney John Picerno, who represented George at trial.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said her office will be consulting with the Missouri attorney general and others about how to proceed.

“No matter the court’s ruling, let’s not forget the victim’s family in this case and the great grief they’ve endured,” Baker said in a written statement. “My office will be conferring with them about the impact of this ruling.”

Kansas officials said the ruling should have a negligible effect there.

Kansas law prohibits the imposition of death or life without parole for offenders younger than 18. The state has no inmates serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Monday’s decision, the result of cases from Arkansas and Alabama, is the court’s latest in recent years addressing juvenile sentencing issues.

The court previously found that juveniles could not be sentenced to death and that they could not be sentenced to life without parole in non-homicide cases.

Monday’s ruling pertained to juveniles convicted of killing someone.

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional,” the majority opinion stated.

The dissent, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, stated that “determining the appropriate sentence for a teenager convicted of murder presents grave and challenging questions of morality and social policy.”

“Our role, however, is to apply the law, not to answer such questions,” Roberts wrote. “The pertinent law here is the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’ Today, the court invokes that amendment to ban a punishment that the court does not itself characterize as unusual, and that could not plausibly be described as such.”

Ben Trachtenberg, associate law professor at the University of Missouri, said the issue of how the ruling could be applied to those already in prison is a complicated one. Those who have not exhausted their direct appeals likely will benefit from it.

Those without appellate options do not always enjoy the benefits of a new ruling, he said, but that depends on if the Supreme Court deems it a sufficiently important issue to be broadly applied retroactively.

“They don’t do that for a lot of cases,” he said.

O’Brien said that the simplest solution to avoid protracted litigation would be for the governor to commute all applicable sentences to life in prison with the chance of parole at some point.

Amending the law for future cases will require some action by the Missouri General Assembly, he said.

Douglas Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri, said the ruling is part of the court’s step-by-step rolling back of harsh sentencing for juveniles and relies on psychological research into juvenile brain development. He said it is likely not the last ruling from the court following that line of thought.

O’Brien said the ruling is a common sense and humane way of handling such cases.

“One thing that is predictable about a child is that he or she will change,” he said. “They haven’t grown up yet.”