February 01, 2016

Supreme Court Holds Juveniles Sentenced to Life May Seek Review of Their Sentences

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280 (U.S. Jan. 25, 2016). 

Montgomery, a man convicted in 1963 at age 17 for killing a police officer in Louisiana sought state collateral relief following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. __ (2012). Miller held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Montgomery argued that Miller rendered his mandatory life without parole sentence illegal. The Louisiana trial court denied Montgomery’s motion, and the Louisiana Supreme Court dismissed his appeal based on its prior ruling that Miller does not apply retroactively to cases in state collateral review. 

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case to determine if its holding in Miller applies retroactively to juveniles whose convictions and sentences were final when Miller was decided.

In a 6-3 decision, Justice Kennedy wrote “A penalty imposed pursuant to an unconstitutional law is no less void because the prisoner’s sentence became final before the law was held unconstitutional. There is no grandfather clause that permits States to enforce punishments the Constitution forbids.” 

In finding Miller’s ruling applies retroactively, the Court explained that when prisoners are permitted to challenge their convictions in state collateral court proceedings, “states cannot refuse to give retroactive effect to a substantive constitutional right that determines the outcome of that challenge.”

The Court determined that Miller announced a new substantive rule that must be applied retroactively under the Constitution. Miller’s conclusion that a sentence to life without parole is disproportionate for many juvenile offenders creates a risk that many are being held in violation of the Constitution, according to the Court. 

Kennedy said the ruling does not require states to re-litigate sentences or convictions in every juvenile case. “The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.” Prisoners who have not shown an ability to reform will continue to serve life sentences.

Kennedy stressed that “…prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

 —Claire Chiamulera, CLP Editor