The killing of a mockingbird, in the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, is emblematic of the destruction of innocence. The songbird, in the literary piece, embodied a purity that brought harm to no one and should not be killed. A child or adolescent reflects that same innocence, and that wholesomeness invokes an earnest protection from harm. However, what if that mockingbird or adolescent harms another? Does the law seek to shelter the now "juvenile" from the retributive hand of justice? United States v. Under Seal, 819 F.3d 715 (4th Cir. 2016), engages this matter from the purview of legislative intent and constitutional jurisprudence.
The severability of unconstitutional provisions within statutes to punish juvenile criminal acts was an issue of first impression for the court. Previous Supreme Court decisions prohibited juveniles from being sentenced to death or to mandatory life without parole. In Under Seal, the government sought to prosecute a juvenile for murder in aid of racketeering under 18 U.S.C. § 1959(a)(1), by severing or excising the statute to permit punishment under an inapplicable crime. The appellate court held that it is impermissible to use excision to combine the penalty provisions for two distinct criminal acts. The court found the government's proposal to amount to an impermissible judicial rewriting of the statute's murder penalty provision. Courts are provided the discretion to interpret legislative intent when determining the applicability of the law to a set of facts, but courts cannot rule in a manner that would alter the purpose or punishment set forth by the statute.
This case note discusses the effect the Under Seal decision will have on subsequent cases involving criminal acts charged against a juvenile. Second, it discusses how the decision in Under Seal limits the potential abuse of the principle of severability to prosecute crimes generally. Finally, the note briefly discusses the implications retroactivity will have on previous convictions.