EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Maryland Public Defender Trying to Get Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences Tossed

According to a recent article,

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender's post-conviction division has adopted a strategy to help ensure juveniles convicted of crimes and serving life sentences without the possibility of parole are resentenced following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that such punishments are cruel and unusual.

The Supreme Court case was Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Many claim, however, that Miller actually sweeps more broadly, and that seems to be the argument being made by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender's post-conviction division. According to the article,

Under the division's new Youth-Resentencing Project, attorneys will investigate all life-without-parole cases to determine if the crime occurred before the convict reached age 18 and examine other cases involving juvenile offenders serving long sentences short of life without parole, said division chief Becky Feldman.

Presumably, these other cases would include cases in which juvenile defendants are given sentences that are constructively life without parole. One example would be the life + 30 sentence given to Adnan Syed, who almost certainly has no hope of ever seeing his way outside of prison unless his conviction is reversed.

In South Carolina, we're dealing with similar issues. Last year, I was honored to moot John Blume's arguments in a case involving several defendants trying to get their juvenile life without parole sentences thrown out. Those arguments were ultimately successful, and it will be interesting to see whether a similar result is achieved in Maryland.



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So is it your position that after taking a life a killer should one day be allowed to walk free again just because they were 17 1/2 years old?

Posted by: Philip Lombard | Sep 17, 2015 1:55:25 PM

My brain just blew up with amazement! What a great new process. I hope in the near future we see the end of wrongful convictions.

Posted by: call me curious George | Sep 17, 2015 2:28:12 PM

Could Adnan's attorney file something to have the Judge reduce his sentence, even maybe to time served? If something was filed would it preclude Adnan from trying to get the DNA tested to prove he was innocent and a third party did it?

Posted by: Anna | Sep 17, 2015 5:07:07 PM

Does this mean Adnan can get a new trial through this change or will it just be a select board or judge re-assessing the sentence?

Posted by: Eryn | Sep 18, 2015 1:23:51 AM

Phillip Lombard: I don’t believe in juvenile life without parole, so I think the 17.5 year-old should be allowed to walk free at some point.

call me curious george: It will be interesting to see what they can achieve.

Anna: Adnan’s attorney could ask the governor to commute the sentence, but there are other lines available before it gets to that.

Eryn: This is only about sentencing, and I imagine it would be a while before anything is done outside of life without parole sentences.

Posted by: Colin | Sep 18, 2015 5:03:20 AM

The issue of juvenile defendants being exempt from life without parole has some interesting implications. It appears to be based on the idea that there are fundamental differences in brain structure that make young people more impulsive, and that make them more likely to be rehabilitated. On the one hand, I certainly agree that young brains are different from the average adult brain; on the other hand, there is a great deal of scientific evidence to the effect that most violent adult criminals have brains whose development has been significantly altered or stunted by trauma, that in fact, many of them are best viewed as traumatized children inhabiting the bodies of adults. Advancing science is showing us that such differences (often disparaged as the “bad childhood” excuse) are observable at a chemical and neurological level, and are not merely a matter of abstract philosophy. If the central justification for Miller v. Alabama was that young brains are impulsive, that should apply to a much broader category of criminal defendant; if, rather, the primary justification is the capacity for rehabilitation, it is possible that young people are more likely to be rehabilitated, but it seems equally possible that the capacity for rehabilitation is correlated with other aspects of brain development that might only loosely connect to age. Should courts begin actively considering neurology in all sentencing decisions, or, alternatively, should the Eight Amendment prevent sentences of life without parole for most or even all convicts?

Posted by: Josh | Sep 18, 2015 6:40:01 AM

Josh, very good points. It is a sticky situation for sure. It would almost have to be a case by case basis and getting the government to do that would be a miracle, not to mention all the hurdles and expense.

Posted by: Traci | Sep 18, 2015 7:25:46 AM

Josh makes some very interesting points, to which I’d add just a bit more from a brain science perspective. Neurodevelopmental research shows that the adolescent brain isn’t actually fully developed until the age of about 25. Until then, neural connections aren’t complete between the amygdala (which triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response and can trigger impulsive behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher functions like attention, reflection, impulse control, understanding another person’s perspective, etc.). In the unlikely event that brain development becomes a factor in sentencing, 18 might not be the right threshold, especially for males, whose brains develop more slowly than females’. There are approaches such as mindfulness training that schools can use to help kids develop attention, self-awareness, impulse control, etc. – which would be great in my troubled city, where this week a student was arrested for the attempted murder of another student in a high school cafeteria. Especially if the legal system were to begin factoring neurodevelopment into sentencing, it would be a good idea for communities and schools to make K-12 mindfulness training a new normal.

Posted by: Bev | Sep 18, 2015 9:04:05 AM

Neurodevelopmental research or not, we have to draw the line somewhere. Deciding when people are old enough to vote, drink, enter into legal contracts, or be tried for murder will never be done perfectly, but it has to be done.

Right now, I do not believe we have the science to do this on a case-by-case basis. We're stuck being somewhat arbitrary and using the calendar. (Worse - many of those convicted as an adult for a crime that happened prior to their 18th birthday are in a system where others of the same age are charged and tried as juveniles.

Posted by: Boo | Sep 19, 2015 11:22:27 AM

Josh and Bev, I understand that adolescent brains are not fully developed – that's why car insurance companies charge much more for those under 24.
Would the impulsive argument only apply to 2nd degree murder but not 1st degree (since they should be able to tell right from wrong while they're planning it even though they might have more trouble stopping a violent reaction)?
On a technical note, it seems like cruel and unusual speaks to less to rehabilitation and more to this child's inability to ever have a life outside of bars.

Posted by: Jeff | Sep 20, 2015 12:43:06 AM

Jeff, good point about impulse control vs the premeditation of 1st degree murder. Some other functions of a late-blooming prefrontal cortex may be relevant. One is “metacognition,” the ability to think-about-our-thinking, as in - “I am furious and want to smack that jerk, but am I really mad about what he just did to me, or is it more that I’m crazy stressed about other things that are going on in my life?” In other words, the capacity for self-awareness and reflection makes a difference. Another late-blooming prefrontal cortex function is “perspective-taking,” something like - “Hey, what’s up with him? Oh, I get it. He just found out his mother has cancer and he’s freaking out. That’s sad. Give him some space.” That is, understanding where someone else is coming from can defuse our reactions. Research suggests that the ability to have these kinds of reflective, non-reactive trains of thought comes later in adolescence. Lack of this ability might be a relevant factor in a crime, whether it’s premeditated or not. … In the best of all possible worlds, we’d help kids toward this kind of awareness before there’s serious trouble.

Posted by: Bev | Sep 20, 2015 7:30:49 PM

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