Are Life Sentences For Teenagers Cruel And Unusual?

The Supreme Court heard two cases Tuesday that would determine whether life sentences for two teenagers qualified as cruel and unusual under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

By Tim Young

The Supreme Court heard two cases Tuesday that would  determine whether life sentences for two teenagers qualified as cruel and unusual under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

The first case was Jackson v. Hobbs.

On November 18, 1999, Kuntrell Jackson and two accomplices, Travis Booker and Derrick Shields, conspired to rob the Movie Magic video store in Arkansas.  Shields, who had been armed with a sawed-off shotgun, shot store clerk Laurie Troup after she told him there was no money in the store.

Police arrested Jackson four months later in March 2000.  He made a written statement that described the shooting, implicating Shields as the one who pulled the trigger.  An Arkansas court later convicted Jackson of capital murder and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Attorneys for Jackson argued that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a fourteen-year-old to life without parole for capital murder.

Attorneys for the State of Arkansas responded that their court system was correct in sentencing Jackson as they would an adult for being a part of the taking of a life.

The second case was Miller V. Alabama.

Evan Miller, then 14 years old, and his co-defendant, Colby Smith were involved in multiple crimes the night of July 15, 2003.  The evening began when Miller and Smith broke into their neighbor, Cole Cannon’s trailer in search of drugs.  Finding none, the two stole Cannon’s baseball cards and returned home.

Later that evening, Smith and Miller returned to the trailer to find Cannon passed out due to drinking.  Miller took Cannon’s wallet out of his pocket, taking his license and $300 in cash from him.  Cannon began to wake up and attacked the two boys, who then beat him to death with a baseball bat.  After realizing they had killed him, the two decided to light the trailer on fire to burn the evidence.

Evan Miller was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced by an Alabama court to life without parole.

Attorneys for Miller argue that this is a violation of both his eighth and fourteenth amendment rights, which protect against someone being given cruel and unusual punishment.  They also argue that Miller should not have been tried as an adult.

Attorneys for the State of Alabama defend their stance in that the fourteen-year-old’s sentence was justifiable because of the crime.

According to human rights groups, there are over 2000 minors who have also been incarcerated for life without parole.  The decision in this case, as well as Miller v. Alabama, which was also heard by the court today, will determine the fate of many of those individuals.

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