To go from arguing against the death penalty, as opposed to life in prison, to arguing that “life in prison without parole was basically a death sentence” is sophistry such as to eliminate all important moral and legal distinctions.
The sophistry reveals that those who previously emphasized as essential the difference between being permitted to live out one’s life in prison, as opposed to being executed, never meant what they had said, and instead were only trying, by hook or by crook, to gradually get all punishment done away with.
This “evolving moral consensus” line can and will be used at each step to get punishment further reduced. What is needed is for proponents of justice for murder victims to go on the offensive, and demand that capital punishment be reinstated for juvenile killers.
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By Chad Flanders
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Wednesday, December 29, 2010, 12:00 am| (0) comments. [Read: No comments permitted!]
Three years ago, 15-year-old Antonio Andrews shot and killed a police officer in St. Louis and was sentenced to life without parole. Andrews appealed his sentence as being "cruel and unusual." On Dec. 21, the Missouri Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, rejected his appeal.
Even though Andrews lost his case, his argument that life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional soon may win the day. To see why, we need to look at two U.S. Supreme Court cases that set the stage for Andrews' appeal and that show why his argument is worth taking seriously.
The first case, Roper v. Simmons, had its start in Missouri. Christopher Simmons was a juvenile who faced the death penalty for drowning a woman in the Meramec River. He appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, arguing that the evolving moral consensus in America was that executing juveniles was cruel and unusual — and the Missouri Supreme Court, in a surprising decision, agreed.
The decision was surprising because, not too many years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the permissibility of executing juveniles. The Missouri Supreme Court, over a strong dissent by Judge William Ray Price, however, said that times had changed and that the national consensus now was against the execution of juveniles.
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, making the death penalty for juveniles unconstitutional. In its opinion, the Supreme Court emphasized, through scientific studies, what might be thought obvious: Juveniles are different from adults, the court said, and they're more impulsive and susceptible to negative influences. A murder by a juvenile doesn't necessarily show that he had a "reprehensible character," only that he was immature and irresponsible.
[He just “made a mistake.” Yeah, that’s the ticket.]
The second important decision for understanding the Andrews case was decided just this year by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Graham v. Florida, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles who committed non-homicide crimes to life without the possibility of parole. Saying that life in prison without parole was basically a death sentence — those sentenced this way will "die in prison" — the Graham court again relied on scientific studies that showed juveniles had a lesser sense of responsibility than adults and, thus, are less deserving of the most severe punishments.
[To go from arguing against the death penalty, as opposed to life in prison, to arguing that “life in prison without parole was basically a death sentence” is sophistry such as to eliminate all important distinctions. The sophistry reveals that those who previously emphasized the as essential the difference between being permitted to live out one’s life in prison, as opposed to being executed, never meant what they had said, and instead were only trying, by hook or by crook, to gradually get all punishment done away with. This “evolving moral consensus” line can and will be used at each step to get punishment further reduced. What is needed is for proponents for justice for murder victims to go on the offensive, and demand that capital punishment be reinstated for juvenile killers.]
More interestingly, the Supreme Court in Graham stressed not only the reality that juveniles were less mature, but also the possibility that, in time, they could be rehabilitated and so should not be denied the chance to eventually rejoin society. In an important passage in Graham, Justice Kennedy wrote that "[l]ife in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope. Maturity can lead to that considered reflection, which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation."
Which finally brings us back to Antonio Andrews. Andrews wasn't sentenced to death, so his case doesn't fall under Roper. And his crime was a homicide, so it doesn't fit under Graham, either.
But he still was sentenced as a juvenile to life without parole, and even if the texts of Roper and Graham don't apply to his case, their logic almost certainly does.
Roper says that juveniles shouldn't be considered as morally culpable as adults who commit the same crime, even if that crime is murder. And Graham says that a juvenile should be given a chance to show that his crime doesn't represent his true character, that he made a mistake, and that he can change — in other words, that he should not be judged (and imprisoned) for the rest of his life for something he did as a child. As Judge Michael Wolff wrote in his dissent to Andrews, life without parole denies the juvenile offender "the possibility that he might redeem himself."
The Missouri Supreme Court, admittedly, was in a tough spot. The U.S. Supreme Court in Graham did seem to leave it open for states to give juveniles life without parole for homicides. And a person —even a juvenile — who shoots and kills a police officer is never a sympathetic character. But it is difficult to see how to limit the logic of Roper and Graham. Taken together, they stand for the proposition that juveniles are different and that they deserve breaks and chances that adults may not.
Andrews may not have won his case, but someday, someone similarly situated probably will, and life without parole for any crime committed by a juvenile — even a homicide — will be found cruel and unusual.
Chad Flanders teaches at Saint Louis University School of Law.