For Second Time This Term, U.S. Supreme Court Lets Stand a Ruling That Miller v. Alabama Is Retroactive


The United States Supreme Court today left intact the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision retroactively applying the constitutional ban on automatic life-without-parole sentences for children.

In People v. Addolfo Davis, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Miller v. Alabama applies retroactively to sentences imposed before it was announced in 2012. Illinois prosecutors asked the United States Supreme Court to review the state court’s decision; the Court denied that request today.

Most state supreme courts agree that Miller is retroactive. Today’s order comes in the second case this Term in which the Court has upheld a state supreme court’s decision to apply Miller retroactively. In October, the Court let stand the Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision that Miller is retroactive.

On November 12, South Carolina became the latest state to apply Miller retroactively. Like the supreme courts of Wyoming, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Illinois, Mississippi, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Texas, as well as federal courts across the country, the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously recognized that Miller is a substantive rule that “plainly excludes a certain class of defendants–juveniles–from specific punishment–life without parole absent individualized considerations of youth.” The new substantive rule must be applied retroactively because failing to do so “risks subjecting defendants to a legally invalid punishment.”

The South Carolina court acknowledged that Miller‘s holding did not expressly include states such as South Carolina whose sentencing scheme permits a life without parole sentence to be imposed on a juvenile offender but does not mandate it. The court nonetheless found that it must give effect to Miller‘s finding that “youth has constitutional significance” and “must be afforded adequate weight in sentencing.”

The court reasoned that “Miller does more than ban mandatory life sentencing schemes for juveniles; it establishes an affirmative requirement that courts fully explore the impact of the defendant’s juvenility on the sentence rendered.” The ruling requires that all people currently serving life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenses, as well as all prospective juvenile offenders, must receive an individualized sentencing hearing “where the mitigating hallmark features of youth are fully explored.”