Arkansas Supreme Court Divides on Constitutionality of Life Imprisonment Without Parole for Juveniles Convicted of Homicide


Kuntrell Jackson

Justices on the Arkansas Supreme Court have divided on the question of whether it is constitutional to impose life imprisonment without parole sentences on juveniles convicted of homicide. EJI challenged the life imprisonment without parole sentence imposed on 14-year-old Kuntrell Jackson, who was convicted of murder. On February 9, 2011, the court upheld the legality of his sentence. However, applying the United States Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Graham v. Florida, two justices concluded that the Eighth Amendment now bars life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of certain homicides and a third justice questioned the propriety of mandatory life sentences for children.

Kuntrell Jackson was barely 14 on the night of the incident that led to his arrest. As the decision recounts, he was walking with an older cousin and friend when the boys began discussing the idea of robbing a video store. When they arrived at the store, the other two boys went in, but Kuntrell stayed outside by the door. One of the other boys shot the clerk, and then all three fled without taking any money.

Kuntrell was tried as an adult and, upon conviction, the court imposed a mandatory life imprisonment without parole sentence. EJI challenged his sentence as cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition in Roper v. Simmons, and most recently, in Graham v. Florida, that children are different from adults in ways that must be considered in sentencing.

The majority opinion reasoned that the “Court’s holdings in Roper and Graham are very narrowly tailored to death-penalty cases involving a juvenile and life-imprisonment-without-parole cases for nonhomicide offenses involving a juvenile. We decline to extend the Court’s bans to homicide cases involving a juvenile where the death penalty is not at issue.”

However, other justices decided that the “facts in Graham are not terribly different from the facts in the instant case, except that the victim in Graham did not die from Graham’s accomplice’s physical attack.” They concluded that Kuntrell’s sentence is unconstitutional because he “did not kill and any evidence of intent to kill was severely lacking. He never possessed the weapon, he was not the shooter, and his involvement in the robbery was limited.” The dissent concluded that “the analysis of the United States Supreme Court in Graham applies to the juvenile defendant in the instant case.”

Three judges also expressed concern that the trial judge had no discretion in sentencing and could not consider Kuntrell’s age or any other mitigating circumstances. Dissenting justices noted that Arkansas’ mandatory sentencing scheme may violate Graham, in which the Court wrote that “criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants’ youthfulness into account at all would be flawed.”