In a decision vacating the life-without-parole sentence imposed on 16-year-old Chancey Luna, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals made clear that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to die in prison unless prosecutors prove the child can never be rehabilitated.
The decision is the first published opinion from the Oklahoma court applying the United States Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, and Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that Miller applies retroactively.
Chancey Luna’s lawyers argued that Montgomery clarified and broadened Miller, and held that life without parole is always unconstitutional for a juvenile unless he is “permanently incorrigible” or “irreparably corrupt.” The appeals court agreed, holding that Miller and Montgomery establish a clear rule:
No person who committed a crime as a juvenile may be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole unless [the sentencer] finds beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible.
In Mr. Luna’s case, the jury had the option to impose life with or without the possibility of parole, but it did not consider his youth and the special characteristics of children or his chances for rehabilitation. The court wrote:
[T]here is no genuine question that the rule in Miller as broadened in Montgomery rendered a life without parole sentence constitutionally impermissible, notwithstanding the sentencer’s discretion to impose a lesser term, unless the sentencer “take[s] into account ‘how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.'”
The court explained that “Miller‘s distinction between children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity and those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption are factors in the sentencing equation for any juvenile facing life without parole.”
Because Mr. Luna’s jury did not consider those factors, the court held that his sentence is unconstitutional and remanded the case for resentencing “to determine whether the crime reflects Luna’s transient immaturity, or an irreparable corruption and permanent incorrigibility warranting the extreme sanction of life imprisonment without parole.”