The decision came in two cases of defendants, one in Arkansas and one in Alabama, who were convicted of committing a murder when they were 14. Laws in 29 states have sentencing schemes that in some cases mandate life without parole for teen killers. The ruling also affects about 2,500 prisoners across the nation who killed before the age of 18 and are serving life without parole.
In Montgomery, Ala., the Equal Justice Initiative called the decision "an important win for children." The group represented the two defendants.
"This is an important win for children. The court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don't allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change," said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. "The court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system."
The decision means the lower courts must conduct new sentencing hearings, with judges considering individual characters and life circumstances, including age, as well as the circumstances of the crime.
Stevenson said historically, race and poverty have been powerful forces in influencing which children receive life-without-parole sentences.
But in Chicago, the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, which filed a friend of the court brief, had a different take.
"This ruling invalidating the life sentences of many of our family members' murder cases comes against the backdrop of tragedy. While we understand the tragic consequences to the killers, the entire context of this decision is first and foremost the appalling and senseless murders of our innocent loved ones and the devastation left behind," said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, NOVJL president, in a statement. "Everyone's biggest concern now must be finding, notifying and supporting the many affected victims' families."
"The deluge of litigation, legislation and resentencing that has been opened today by the court will rip up the legal finality that family members have relied on. We will have to go back to court and re-engage with the offenders who ruined our lives. We walked away from these sentences believing that part of our ordeal was over. Many did not register for victim notification and may be difficult to find. Many did not retain records that they might now need, raising due process and victims' rights concerns," said Jody Robinson of NOVJL Michigan.