The case involves Evan Miller, who beat a man with a baseball bat, robbed him and left him to burn to death in a blazing trailer nearly 10 years ago in Lawrence County, Ala. Miller was 14 at the time.
Attorney Bryan Stevenson reminded the Supreme Court that in 2010's Graham vs. Florida, a high court majority "recognized that children are inherently characterized by internal attributes and external circumstances" that would "preclude a finding of a degree of culpability ... [to] make a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole constitutionally permissible under the court's Eighth Amendment excessiveness analysis."
The Eighth Amendment bans cruel and unusual punishments. The Graham case involved non-lethal offenses.
"While the issue in Graham involved juveniles that were convicted of non-homicide offenses," Stevenson said, "these deficits in maturity and judgment and decision-making are not crime-specific. All children are encumbered with the same barriers that this court has found to be constitutionally relevant before imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment without parole or the death penalty."
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the court's liberals, pointed out that in 2005's Roper vs. Simmons, which banned execution of those who committed murder before age 18, a court majority said, "To the extent the juvenile death penalty might have residual deterrent effect, it is worth noting that the punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is itself a severe sanction."
"So, the court in Roper seemed to be anticipating this case and suggesting that ... it was all right, it was constitutional" to impose life without parole on those who committed murder before 18, Ginsburg said.
Justice Anthony Kennedy rejected a contention that legislatures were not fully informed of what they were doing when they enacted such sentences into law.
"The statistics show there are [U.S.] 2,300 prisoners now under sentence of ... life without parole for juvenile murders... that were committed under 18. Twenty-three hundred nationwide," Kennedy told Stevenson. "So, it's very difficult to assess your answer to Justice [Samuel] Alito that, oh, the legislatures don't know about this."
Also Tuesday, the justices heard the Arkansas case of a defendant who also was sentenced to life without parole for a homicide committed at age 14. But in that case, the teenager did not do the killing, only part of a robbery that ended in a killing by someone else.
Decisions in both case should come within several months.
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