EJI lawyers argued on January 12, 2011, in the Mississippi Court of Appeals on behalf of Dante Evans, who had just turned 14 years old when he was accused of shooting his abusive father. Before a three-judge panel, EJI attorney Bryan Stevenson argued that serious constitutional errors at Dante’s trial, including the judge’s requirement that jurors commit to give no consideration to Dante’s age, require that his conviction and mandatory life sentence be overturned.
Dante Evans grew up in a violent and chaotic household where his father was the source of extraordinary domestic violence and abuse, including two incidents where the father attempted to kill Dante’s mother in front of her children. Dante was affected by the violence he experienced and witnessed: at seven or eight, he was hospitalized for depression and diagnosed with a chronic trauma disorder; and at 10 or 11, he was sent to the hospital because he was suicidal. His parents permanently separated after his father tried to run his mother over with his car.
In early 2007, Dante was sent to live alone with his father in Mississippi. There was evidence that his father beat and threatened to kill him. When Dante asked school officials for help, they told Dante’s father and then sent Dante home with him. When they got home, Dante was beaten by his father and subjected to more threats and violence. The next day, school officials saw bruises on Dante and made a complaint to the Department of Human Services, but no action was taken before Dante was accused of shooting his father. Dante was arrested and charged with murder. He had just turned fourteen and had no prior criminal history.
Dante was automatically tried as an adult. At trial, jurors were not allowed to consider Dante’s young age or allowed to hear important testimony about the abuse he suffered. EJI argued in its appeals brief that the trial judge mistakenly refused to let the jury decide whether Dante acted in self-defense, because he believed that he was in great danger from his father.
Dante was automatically sentenced to life imprisonment, without any consideration of his age or background of abuse and trauma. He is one of only a small group of 14-year-old children to be sentenced to life imprisonment. EJI believes such sentences are cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Constitution.
EJI took on Dante’s case as part of our national effort to represent 13- and 14-year-old children sentenced to die in prison. Last fall, EJI won a new trial for a 13-year-old child who, like Dante, had been sentenced to die in prison in Mississippi.