Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Capital Punishment, Juveniles, and Life in Prison

Death Penalty Jurisprudence May Hold Key to Juvenile Life Decision:

The law is made up of rules and standards.

Here is an example of a rule, established by the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons in 2005: If you commit murder even hours before your 18th birthday, you cannot be put to death for your crime. The same killing a few hours later may be a capital offense. The court drew a bright-line rule at 18.

Here is an example of a standard, one proposed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. this month at Supreme Court arguments over whether juvenile offenders may be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole: Why not, the chief justice asked, interpret the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment to require sentencing judges to consider the defendant’s age on a case-by-case basis?

But there is a third possible retort, one that draws on the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia barring the execution of the mentally retarded. That sounds like a rule, in that it made an entire class of people categorically ineligible for the death penalty. But it turns out to be a standard.

But there is a third possible retort, one that draws on the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia barring the execution of the mentally retarded. That sounds like a rule, in that it made an entire class of people categorically ineligible for the death penalty. But it turns out to be a standard.

How has this standard been applied in practice?

Nationwide, the claims have succeeded about 38 percent of the time. But state success rates vary widely.

North Carolina courts heard 21 Atkins claims and ruled in the inmate’s favor 17 times. Alabama courts heard 26 claims and ruled for the inmate 3 times.

Recall that the Supreme Court said an IQ of “approximately 70” should usually satisfy the first part of the test. In Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, four inmates with IQ scores of 66 and 67 were held not to be retarded. But in Pennsylvania, an inmate whose score ranged from 70 to 75 won an Atkins claim. In California, a score of 84 did the trick.

In other words, on the retardation issue, the Atkins decision ended up being a mess. I would hope in the Florida cases regarding juveniles and life in prison without parole (LWOP), the court would adopt a "bright line" 18 year old standard along the lines of Roper. It's simpler and far easier to reach given the Trop test of determining whether a punishment is cruel or unusual by today's standards (most states do not sentence juveniles to LWOP for non-homicide crimes).

We'll watch and report.

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