EJI Challenges Death-in-Prison Sentences for Young Teens in Two Cases at U.S. Supreme Court


In two separate cases of 14-year-old children who were convicted of homicide and sentenced to die in prison, EJI lawyers are asking the United States Supreme Court to address whether it is constitutional to impose life imprisonment without parole sentences on juveniles convicted of homicide.

In February, the Arkansas Supreme Court divided on the question of whether it is constitutional to condemn juveniles convicted of homicide to life in prison without parole in the case of 14-year-old Kuntrell Jackson. Kuntrell was convicted of murder after his older cousin and friend shot a video store clerk during a robbery attempt. He received a mandatory sentence to die in prison.

EJI challenged Kuntrell’s 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 court upheld the legality of Kuntrell’s sentence, but two justices applied Graham v. Florida and 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.

The dissenting justices observed 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.”

The second case also challenges a mandatory life-without-parole sentence, this one imposed in Alabama on Evan Miller, who suffered physical and emotional abuse so severe that he tried to kill himself when he was just seven years old. On the night of the crime, a middle-aged man gave 14-year-old Evan and an older boy drugs and alcohol. The two intoxicated kids got into a physical altercation with the older man, who was hit with a baseball bat and his trailer set on fire. He died of smoke inhalation. Evan was convicted of capital murder and received a mandatory sentence to die in prison, without any consideration of his age or the abuse and neglect he suffered throughout his short life. Neither of the mandatory sentences imposed in these cases took into consideration scientific evidence establishing that 14-year-old children have achieved even less brain development, and therefore are even more immature, vulnerable, and changeable, than the older teens in Roper and Graham. Nationwide, only about 70 kids age 14 or under at the time of the offense are sentenced to die in prison, in just 18 states.