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The U.S. Supreme Court has offered a chance of release to about 2,000 prisoners. These inmates were sentenced to life without parole for homicides committed when they were juveniles. In 2012, the court struck down such automatic life terms and today, the justices, by a 6-3 vote, took the unusual step of making that decision retroactive. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The case before the court began more than a half-century ago when Henry Montgomery, an African-American teenager, was sentenced to a mandatory life-without-parole term for the murder of a white police officer in Louisiana. Now 70, he's long been a model prisoner at the Louisiana's notorious Angola prison. So when the Supreme Court ruled four years ago that mandatory life terms are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, even murderers, his lawyer sought a review of his sentence. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which does not usually make its criminal law decisions retroactive. Most of its decisions apply only to the future. But this case proved a rare exception.
Writing for the court's six-justice majority today, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that a life-without-parole sentence is always unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment unless the juvenile defendant is found to be irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible. We've made clear in a series of rulings, he said, that life terms for juvenile defendants are impermissible except for the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible. The court's 2012 decision barring automatic life terms for juvenile murderers, he said, is the kind of rare new constitutional rule that must be applied not just prospectively by the states but retroactively, too.
Kennedy noted that Henry Montgomery spent each of the last 46 years knowing that he was condemned to die in prison. Perhaps it can be established that this fate was a just and proportionate punishment for a crime he committed as a 17-year-old boy, said Kennedy, but in light of what our decisions have said about the relative culpability of juveniles, Montgomery and others like him 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.
Experts say there are some 2,000 life-termers in similar circumstances sentenced without consideration of the immaturity, recklessness and impetuosity of youth. Louisiana and other states argued before the court that if they were forced to hold new sentencing hearings it would be difficult, time-consuming and expensive, if not impossible. The state's lawyer said that about half of those serving life terms for crimes they committed when they were under 18 have been in prison for 20 years or more and that in many cases, the witnesses, defense lawyers and prosecutors are dead, and records impossible to locate.
At oral argument, Justice Kennedy raised the possibility of simply making parole available to these defendants instead of holding a formal new sentencing procedure.
ANTHONY KENNEDY: You don't have a distorted new trial if you just grant a parole hearing.
TOTENBERG: In his decision today, Kennedy offered that possibility to the states, telling them that they could instead parole those no longer deemed dangerous. Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the three dissenters mocked that alternative. In "Godfather" fashion, the majority makes state legislatures an offer they can't refuse, he said. Avoid all the utterly impossible nonsense we've required for sentencing juvenile homicide offenders by simply considering them for parole. Mission accomplished. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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