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Justices to decide if a ban on life terms for juveniles applies retroactively

By Adam Liptak | The New York Times | December 12, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed to decide on Friday whether a decision it made in 2012 barring mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers must be applied retroactively.

The case concerns George Toca, a Louisiana man who was 17 in 1984 when, according to witnesses, he fatally shot a friend during a botched armed robbery. Mr. Toca was convicted of second-degree murder and automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as required by Louisiana law.

In the 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that such mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Constitution forbids “requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.

Rather, she wrote, judges and juries must take account of the distinctive characteristics of youth.

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” she wrote. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”

Life-without-parole sentences remained permissible, she wrote, but only after such individualized consideration.

The decision followed two others concerning harsh penalties imposed on juvenile offenders. In 2005 in Roper v. Simmons, the court eliminated the juvenile death penalty. In 2010 in Graham v. Florida, the court ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole was also unconstitutional, but only for crimes that did not involve killings.

The question in the new case, Toca v. Louisiana, No. 14-6381, is whether the Miller decision entitles Mr. Toca to a new sentencing hearing. The Louisiana Supreme Court said no.

In a case involving a different inmate in the same situation, the Louisiana court explained its reasoning, saying that retroactivity was not required because the Miller decision “merely sets forth a new rule of criminal constitutional procedure.” In urging the United States Supreme Court to hear the case, Mr. Toca’s lawyers said the supreme courts of Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Texas have ruled in favor of retroactivity.

On the other hand, the brief continued, the supreme courts of Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have rejected retroactivity.

Leon A. Cannizzaro Jr., the district attorney for Orleans Parish, told the justices that there were practical reasons to reject retroactivity. The inquiry called for by the Miller decision, he said, was too hard to accomplish decades after the fact.

“Toca is presently 47 years old,” Mr. Cannizzaro wrote. “Absent a psychological exam conducted prior to his conviction that specifically addressed Toca’s ‘youth and attendant characteristics,’ evidence as to Toca’s ‘diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change’ and ‘greater prospects for reform’ at the time of his conviction some 30 years ago on April 16, 1985, is likely nonexistent.”

Read the piece in The New York Times.