High Court Ruling

Families Decry Supreme Court Decision on Juvenile Life Without Parole

Are juvenile killers monsters of their own making—or victims themselves? In its 5–4 decision declaring mandatory life in prison unconstitutional for young murderers, the Supreme Court seemed to fall in the latter camp. Michael Daly reports. Plus, David R. Dow on the weak decision, and Reginald Dwayne Betts remembers a youth behind bars.

Chris Ryan / Getty Images

They are the little monsters, the young killers deemed so dangerous they were locked away for life with no possibility of release.

Now the Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles constitutes a violation of the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The twin cases the court took on, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbes, concerned two youngsters who were 14 when they were arrested. One, Evan Miller from Alabama, beat a 52-year-old neighbor with a bat in 2003 while shouting, “I am God. I’ve come to take your life,” then set the victim’s residence on fire. The other, Kuntrell Jackson from Arkansas, participated in a 1999 video-store robbery in which the 28-year-old clerk was shot in the face and killed.

But the ruling also will affect more than 2,500 convicted killers who were as young as 13 when they were given what the court describes as a kind of living death sentence. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the Alabama-based nonprofit organization that brought the case, contends that these youngsters are not monsters of their own making.

“It would be more accurate to characterize them as the most vulnerable children in our society,” says Bryan Stevenson, the Harvard-trained executive director of EJI and the lead lawyer in the case.

Stevenson is of the view that the very enormity of their crimes at such a young age constitutes proof that they are victims themselves.

“No help, no intervention,” Stevenson says.

In the case of Miller in particular, the majority of the Supreme Court agrees.

“If ever a pathological background might have contributed to a 14-year-old’s commission of a crime, it is here,” the Supreme Court declares in its opinion. “Miller’s stepfather abused him; his alcoholic and drug-addicted mother neglected him; he had been in and out of foster care as a result; and he had tried to kill himself four times, the first when he should have been in kindergarten.”

The family of Miller’s victim, Cole Cannon, refuses to accept that the killer’s background makes him any less responsible for his actions.

“Just because you have a bad childhood doesn’t give you an excuse to commit cold-blooded murder,” says the murdered man’s 36-year-old daughter, Candy Cheatham.

Cheatham reports that she and her family were stunned by the Supreme Court’s decision.

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“I’m actually really shocked, still trying to process it,” Cheatham says. “I’ve been crying on and off all day.”

She says she dreads returning to court for a new sentencing and having to make a second victim’s impact statement. She remembers that she was crying when she began the first one.

“I know you’re supposed to address the court, but I looked at him,” she recalls. “It just didn’t faze him … He sits there with a smirk on his face.”

As detailed in the Supreme Court’s decision, the killing seems to have been less cold-blooded murder than alcohol- and drug-fueled insanity that began when Cole Cannon dropped by the trailer where Miller was living “to make a drug deal with Miller’s mother.” Miller had himself been drinking and doing drugs since he was 8. He and a friend named Colby Smith went with Cannon to Cannon’s trailer to smoke pot and play “drinking games.”

“When Cannon passed out, Miller stole his wallet, splitting about $300 with Smith,” the court says. “Miller then tried to put the wallet back in Cannon’s pocket, but Cannon awoke and grabbed Miller by the throat. Smith hit Cannon with a nearby baseball bat.”

That caused Cannon to let go of Miller’s throat. Miller’s prior criminal history was limited to truancy and a single bust for minor criminal mischief. He now moved from mischief to murder.

“Once released, Miller grabbed the bat and repeatedly struck Cannon with it.”

Miller placed a sheet over Cannon’s head and made the declaration about being God and struck him one more time. The boys fled, but later returned and set the trailer on fire “to cover up evidence of their crime.”

Cannon died from smoke inhalation as well as his injuries. His daughter now says that she is speaking out for him because he cannot speak for himself. She says of his murder, “He did not deserve this.”

“He was a father to three children and six grandchildren he never got to meet,” she says. “He walked me down the aisle at my wedding. My brother and my sister, when they got married, they didn’t get that privilege.”

The other kiddie killer named in the Supreme Court decision, Kuntrell Jackson, seems to have a less manifestly pathological background than Miller. The court does note of Jackson that “both his mother and his grandmother had previously shot other individuals.”

Jackson was clearly no angel, with a history of car theft and shoplifting, but he was perhaps not such a total monster when he and two other youngsters set out to rob a Movie Magic video store in 1999. Jackson is said to have learned only when they were on the way that one of his pals, Derrick Shields, had a sawed-off shotgun in his coat sleeve.

“Jackson decided to stay outside when the two other boys entered the store,” the court says. “Inside, Shields pointed the gun at the store clerk, Laurie Troup, and demanded that she ‘give up the money.’ Troup refused.”

Shields entered a few moments later and what he then said remains a matter of contention.

“At trial, the parties disputed whether Jackson warned Troup that ‘we ain’t playin’,’ or instead told his friend, ‘I thought you all was playin’,’” the court reports.

Nobody disputes what happened next.

“When Troup threatened to call the police, Shields shot and killed her,” the court says, adding, “The three boys fled empty-handed.”

After Jackson was sentenced to life without parole and he was led away, he did express some remorse to the murdered woman’s mother.

“He did tell me he was sorry,” says the mother, Marge Utley.

Troup’s family did their best to continue their lives as if there were such a thing as closure.

“We thought it was all behind us and done where you could move on,” Utley says. “Now it’s all being relived again.”

She had read the appeal and says she felt it contained the lies of a killer trying to weasel out of full responsibility. She had been sure the court would let the sentence stand. She learned otherwise from a phone call just as she was waking up on Monday morning.

“I didn’t think they would overturn it,” she says. ‘I guess it was wishful thinking.”

She adds, “Now I’m sure they’ll be resentencing and we’ll have to go back to court.”

A mother’s love rises up through a mother’s pain as she talks of her daughter.

“She was happy and outgoing and a joy to be around,” Utley says. “She was special.”

The wrenching irony at the core of the decision is that the majority of the court feels that some consideration must be allowed to youngsters who never had anyone feel they were truly special. The court notes that it previously ruled the death penalty for juveniles to be unconstitutional. It had subsequently ruled the same regarding life without parole for nonhomicide juvenile cases, likening such sentences “to the death penalty itself.”

“Children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing,” the court says in its current ruling. “Juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”

The dissenters in this case might be termed inactivist judges. Chief Justice John Roberts writes in his dissent, “Determining the appropriate sentence for a teenager convicted of murder presents grave and challenging questions of morality and social policy. Our role, however, is to apply the law, not to answer such questions.”

Roberts contends that a penalty imposed on some 2,500 juveniles cannot rightly be termed unusual. He goes on to say that “mercy toward the guilty can be a form of decency,” but “a decent society protects the innocent from violence.”

Perhaps even Roberts would feel that decency demands mercy for Trina Garnett of Pennsylvania, another client of EJI, who was 14 when she was convicted of a double arson murder and given two life sentences without parole back in 1976. She had lost her mother at 9 and her father was so crazily violent that, as reported in The Nation, he bludgeoned the family dog to death in front of her and made her clean up the remains. She fled and foraged for food in garbage cans, sleeping whenever she could find shelter. She suffered from a speech impediment and learning disabilities and had a borderline IQ. A psychiatrist found that she very likely did not understand the possible consequences when she lit a fire that killed two young children. She was nonetheless found guilty and sent to prison, where she reported being raped by a corrections officer. He insisted the encounter was consensual and was never prosecuted. The baby from the resulting pregnancy was taken from her immediately after the birth. She is presently wheelchair-bound by multiple sclerosis but suddenly in hope of parole someday, thanks to the Supreme Court.

The decision will prevent a similar sentence from being imposed on Cristian Fernandez of Florida, who was 12 when he was charged with the first-degree murder of his 2-year-old half brother in 2010. His mother was herself 12 when she had Cristian, having been sexually assaulted when she was 11. Cristian was the prime evidence that sent his biological father to jail for fathering him. His stepfather committed suicide in front of him after learning that the police were coming to arrest him for beating Cristian. The officers reported finding Cristian with a battered face, covered with the stepfather’s blood. The mother reportedly punished Cristian by making him move all the family’s belongings from the apartment single-handedly.

As reported in The Florida Times-Union, a psychologist wrote when Cristian was 8: “There has been confirmation of physical and sexual abuse in his records. The sexual abuse has likely been more extensive than what has been verified, as Cristian showed sexualized behaviors at a very young age that were likely imitation of what he has seen for been subjected to.” The psychologist added, here saying what could no doubt be said about a great many kiddie killers, “His lesson from parental figures at an early age was that people respond to frustration by engaging in violence.”

The state attorney who brought the murder charge against Cristian was Angela Corey, who is now prosecuting George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin. Another prosecutor has taken over the Cristian case, which is expected to go to trial in September, with his mother possibly taking the stand against him, having pleaded guilty to manslaughter for her role in the death. One cop who worked on the case joked that they would need a booster seat for the defense table.

Meanwhile, one word that the lawyer Bryan Stevenson of EJI uttered after the Supreme Court decision was announced applies equally to the thousands of little monsters doing life and the thousands of families that must now relive their loss in this complex drama, where decency has such conflicting claims.