Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson are lifers, condemned at 14 to spend their lives in prison without the possibility of parole for their involvement in separate murders. Their backers say their sentences are cruel and unusual, leaving them without the second chance the young are so often given. They hope the U.S. Supreme Court agrees.
Next Tuesday, the court will hear arguments in their cases and its ruling could have far-reaching effects. More than 2,200 people nationwide have been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles — defined as 17 or younger — according to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., a civil rights group that represents Miller and Jackson.
The group hopes the companion cases will be another victory for juvenile criminals, who have found some relief before the Supreme Court over the past seven years. In 2005, the court abolished executions for juvenile offenders. Then, two years ago, the court ruled that it is unconstitutional to impose life sentences on juveniles convicted of crimes that do not involve homicide.
Lawyers for Miller, now 23, and Jackson, now 26, contend that juveniles are works in progress and will argue that forensic evidence shows adolescent brains are not fully developed. “Condemning an immature, vulnerable, and not-yet-fully-formed adolescent to life in prison – no matter the crime – is constitutionally a disproportionate punishment,” they say in their petition to the court. The Equal Justice Initiative declined to discuss the case because of the pending hearing.
Kim Taylor-Thompson, a professor of clinical law at the New York University School of Law, has studied juvenile offenders for nearly a decade and agrees with the group. “No one is excusing the fact of what happened,” she said. “What we are saying is: Did these two young men engage in thought processes that would make us say today they’re the type of individuals who can never be rehabilitated, never change and be locked up to never see the light of day?