Supreme Court Upholds Relief for 16-Year-Old Sentenced to Die in Prison


Today, the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling striking down Keighton Budder’s 155-year sentence for nonhomicide crimes when he was 16 years old.

Keighton Budder was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in Oklahoma in 2010, less than two weeks before the Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida barred life-without-parole sentences for children who did not commit homicide. After Graham was decided, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals changed Keighton’s sentence to three life-with-parole sentences plus 20 years, which required him to serve 155 years in prison.

EJI appealed that ruling as violative of Graham, because it meant that Keighton, even after becoming an adult, would never have the opportunity to earn release by demonstrating that he had matured and rehabilitated.

In early 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Keighton’s sentence was exactly the kind of sentence the Supreme Court had prohibited in Graham. The Tenth Circuit ruling underscored that children are less mature and less culpable than adults, and have a greater capacity for change, even when they are charged with multiple nonhomicide offenses:

Again, we must emphasize that states may not circumvent the strictures of the Constitution merely by altering the way they structure their charges or sentences. Just as they may not sentence juvenile nonhomicide offenders to 100 years instead of “life,” they may not take a single offense and slice it into multiple sub offenses in order to avoid Graham‘s rule that juvenile offenders who do not commit homicide may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The denial of a writ of certiorari in Keighton’s case, despite requests for review from Oklahoma and 17 other states, reaffirms the Court’s prior determinations that children convicted of nonhomicide crimes must be given a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

The Court left intact the decision that sentencing a 16-year-old to 155 years in prison is unconstitutional.