Case questions life-without-parole sentences for minors

The "D.C. sniper" case gripped the nation in 2002. At the time, an unknown individual or individuals were randomly shooting people throughout Washington D.C. Police arrested and charged two individuals in connection with the crime, one age 42 the other 17. Both admitted to roles in the crimes, with the 17-year-old admitting he was the "triggerman" in many of the shootings. The government used this and other evidence to build a case against these individuals and the court convicted both of killing 12 and injuring 6 additional people throughout the Washington D.C. area. The court sentenced the adult to death. The state conducted the execution in 2009.

The court sentenced the 17-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The 17-year-old is now challenging his sentence. He argues the sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, as he was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. Lower courts agreed with his argument, and the case has reached the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) for review.

Previous cases provide precedent: Review of question of constitutionality

Why is he challenging the sentence now? New cases have moved through the court system that could change how his sentencing should have progressed. In one previous case, Miller v. Alabama, SCOUTUS ruled a sentence for mandatory life-without-parole when the defendant is under the age of 18-years-old is a violation of the protection against cruel and unusual punishment presented in the Eighth Amendment. The decision was then made retroactive in another case, Montgomery v. Louisiana.

The issue in this case may hinge on whether Miller applies to all life-without-parole sentences or just those that are the result of a mandatory requirement. Those arguing on behalf of the state contend Miller is clear and applies specifically to cases that have a life-without-parole sentence because of a mandatory requirement. Those opposed state the heart of the Miller case is the question of the youth of the defendant, not the nuances of the rules that resulted in the length of the sentence.

The court is questioning whether the judge and jury in the case had the opportunity to consider the accused's youth at the time of sentencing. Thus far, it appears the judge and jury were only given two options: life-without-parole or a death sentence.

Application of the holding: Implication for others in similar situations

The case will likely provide guidance on how the court should determine sentencing for those who are under the age of 18 at the time they allegedly committed a violent crime. Since the ruling will come from SCOTUS, the highest court in the country, it will apply to sentencing within every state. We will provide an update on this guidance once it becomes available.