Major Victory for Criminal and Juvenile Justice Project Clinic
Sarah Staudt, Class of 2013, provides this update on a major victory in the clinic’s work on juvenile life-without-parole sentences:
The Criminal & Juvenile Justice Project received word over Spring Break of a major victory in one of our cases. One of our clients, M., is currently serving a life sentence in prison, without parole, for a crime he committed when he was 14 years old. M. had never finished the 6th grade. He was, by all accounts, an angry and lost young teenager when he made a terrible mistake. However, M. received this sentence through a mandatory sentencing scheme: his original attorneys never got the chance to argue and the trial judge could not consider that the punishment was disproportionately severe because of M.’s age.
The United States Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama declared mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles unconstitutional in June 2012, explaining that “hallmark features of youth” like impulsiveness and incomplete brain development, have a major impact on the culpability of teenagers for the crimes they commit. Even if these teenagers are tried in adult court, they must be given an opportunity to present evidence about their age and how it might have contributed to the circumstances that led to their criminal behavior. The court didn’t make clear, however, whether this rule also applied retrospectively; that is, whether the over 2,000 inmates nationwide who had been convicted without getting a chance to present evidence about their age should get a new sentencing hearing.
M. is one of these 2,000 inmates. The clinic asked for leave to file a post-conviction petition for M., asking for the court to give M. a chance to have a new sentencing hearing that would consider his extremely young age at the time he was convicted. Our petition, filed a year before Miller but anticipating its rationale, was initially denied by the trial court, and we appealed. Over spring break, the Appellate Court of Illinois, First Division, overruled the trial court and remanded the case, ordering that we be given leave to file our petition. We weren’t surprised by this result, as multiple Illinois Appellate courts have recently ruled that Miller can be retroactively applied, but now that the decision has been made in our case, our work can move forward, and we’re very excited about the possibility of letting M. get out of prison in his lifetime.
Gathering evidence to present at a new sentencing hearing in M.’s case is going to create specific challenges that wouldn’t arise in many other cases. Because the sentencing hearing should consider what M. was like when he was convicted at age 14, we need to hunt down witnesses and records of events that happened over 20 years ago. This work requires extensive conversation with our client to determine who might be willing to help us find that information, and we’re now beginning the complicated process of contacting witnesses and searching for records.