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The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today in two homicide cases. They test whether sentencing a 14-year-old to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, is cruel and unusual punishment. There are currently 79 such killers, convicted as juveniles, who will die in prison. What's more, in many states, the penalty is mandatory - meaning neither judge nor jury is allowed to consider the youngster's age or background during sentencing. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In cases dealing with punishment for juveniles, context is everything. In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juveniles, declaring that kids are different than adults. Because of their youth, their brains are literally, less developed. They're more impulsive, more subject to peer pressure, and less able to see the consequences of their acts.

The court used the same rationale two years ago, when it struck down the penalty of life without parole for non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles. But today, the court faces the question of life without parole in homicide cases.

A case from Arkansas involves a teenager who was not the triggerman. Fourteen-year-old Kuntrell Jackson and two other kids held up a video rental store. One of the other boys pointed a sawed-off shotgun at the cashier and when she threatened to call the police, shot and killed her.

Under Arkansas' felony murder law, Kuntrell Jackson was deemed just as responsible as the triggerman. He was tried as an adult for aggravated murder and under state law, received a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

The other case, from Alabama, involves a boy so brutalized as a child that by the time he was arrested for murder at age 14, he had six times tried to kill himself - the first time, when he was 5 years old.

Just as shocking are the facts of Evan Miller's crime. He and a 16-year-old friend went next door to the home of a neighbor, who was dealing drugs to Evan's mother. The neighbor, 52-year-old Cole Cannon, gave the boys liquor and marijuana. Evan consumed a fifth of whiskey, as the boys engaged in drinking games with Cannon and planned to steal his wallet. Eventually a fight broke out.

The boys beat Cannon severely, then set fires in the trailer and fled, ignoring Cannon's pleas for help. Cannon died of smoke inhalation. The 16-year-old made a deal with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony, and got life with parole eligibility. Fourteen-year-old Evan Miller got life without parole.

Lawyer Bryan Stevenson represents both boys, and today will make two basic arguments before the Supreme Court. The first is that a mandatory punishment of life without parole for a 14-year-old is cruel and unusual punishment because the defendant's age and background are irrelevant and cannot mitigate punishment.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Judges can't consider it. Juries can't consider it. No one can consider it.

TOTENBERG: The states counter that the juvenile's age has already been considered by taking the death penalty off the table. Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman:

SOLICITOR GENERAL JOHN NEIMAN: If the defendant is not going to get the death penalty, then in the very least, the defendant ought to get a life-without-parole sentence, largely to counter-balance the harm the defendant does when he or she commits one of these aggravated murders.

TOTENBERG: But the big question before the Supreme Court today is whether life without the possibility of parole is itself unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment when it's applied to juveniles.

Defense lawyer Stevenson notes that the American legal system treats minors as both less culpable and less responsible. Fourteen-year-olds, for instance, are not allowed to drink, to marry, to vote, to serve on juries, or even to drive.

STEVENSON: We're not saying that juvenile offenders who commit homicide can't be punished severely. They may end up even spending the rest of their lives in prison. But it's premature, excessive and unfair to say we know that this juvenile will never be rehabilitated.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, a brief filed by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators and other juvenile crime experts points to many amazing cases of rehabilitation. Among them is a 16-year-old who shot his mother and after his release, joined the Army and became a member of the Presidential Honor Guard.

Or there is the 15-year-old New York gang member who eventually became the editor-in-chief of the Columbia Law Review. One of the most famous of those who have changed their lives is award-winning actor-producer Charles Dutton. By the age of 12, he quit school and lived a life of fights and crime on the streets of Baltimore.

CHARLES DUTTON: I liked getting in trouble. And I enjoyed getting in fights. I enjoyed the challenge of battle.

TOTENBERG: By the age of 17, he was sentenced to prison for manslaughter. Even in prison, though, he continued his fighting ways, assaulting a guard and getting eight years added to his sentence. A decade or so later, he was on his way to the hole when he picked up a book of plays sent to him by a girlfriend. It ended up changing his life. As he puts it, he found what he was born to do.

DUTTON: Up until that point, I didn't really concentrate on the life I had taken. But only at that moment of rediscovering my own humanity - that I could go back and have a very strong and sincere, heartfelt remorse for taking that man's life.

TOTENBERG: Dutton says he understands the desire to avenge a terrible crime but...

DUTTON: There's no sense of destroying a second life if that life is actually redeemable.

TOTENBERG: The states that have adopted life without parole for juvenile killers have a very different view. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel:

ATTORNEY GENERAL DUSTIN MCDANIEL: The one thing that we don't know is what the potential of the life would be that was snuffed out in the crime. There have to be circumstances under which those persons can serve life without parole.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, Alabama Solicitor General Neiman notes that 38 of the 50 states authorize life without parole for 14-year-olds convicted of murder, and the federal government authorizes it for 15-year-olds. Part of the justification for that, he observes, is the notion of retribution.

NEIMAN: As a moral matter, it is OK for governments to say, even if there's the possibility that someone will rehabilitate themselves, if a person commits a sufficiently egregious crime, then they just deserve a very severe sentence.

TOTENBERG: Defense lawyer Stevenson counters that in reality, only 18 states have imposed life without parole on a 14-year-old, And only 79 who were 14 at the time of their crime are currently serving life without parole.

Arkansas Attorney General McDaniel says that even if those statistics are accurate - and he disputes them - it doesn't prove much.

MCDANIEL: It's not because society doesn't have the moral stomach to impose those sentences. It's because realistically, 14-year-olds don't commit a lot of murders.

TOTENBERG: Finally, the states argue that life without parole is a sufficiently severe sentence that it will deter at least some juveniles from committing murder. Defense lawyer Stevenson dismisses that argument, echoing the sentiments of many experts who deal with violent juveniles.

STEVENSON: Most of my clients had never heard of life imprisonment without parole, and had no capacity to appreciate what it would mean. It takes them years before they even get what it means to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, because they're just not used to thinking that far ahead.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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