JEFFERSON CITY — An attorney for a St. Louis teen sentenced to spend his life in prison after he was convicted of killing a police officer argued Wednesday that juveniles should not receive automatic life sentences.
Attorney Brocca Smith said that for a juvenile, a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole is cruel and unusual punishment and urged the Missouri Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional. Smith limited her argument to juveniles and only those who have received an automatic sentence of life without parole.
Missouri law requires people convicted of first-degree murder to be executed or sentenced to life in prison. Smith said the problem with mandatory sentences is judges and juries cannot consider juveniles' age, maturity and other mitigating factors before deciding upon the punishment.
"Children are simply not as culpable as adults, and they can't be treated the same under the law," she said.
Courts in recent years have focused on how to handle juveniles accused of serious felonies and other crimes. In 2005,the U.S. Supreme Court barred the execution of juveniles, and this year it determined they could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole except for in murder cases.
Missouri Supreme Court Judge Laura Denvir Stith was among the most active with her questioning during oral arguments Wednesday. She said the next question with juveniles is whether it is acceptable to sentence teens to life automatically without evaluating each defendant.
The case stems from the August 2007 shooting death of St. Louis police officer Norvelle Brown, who was killed while patrolling alone. Antonio Andrews, who was 15 years old at the time of the shooting, was charged as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder and armed criminal action.
According to court records, Andrews and another teen ran away when Brown attempted to stop them, and Andrews fired because he was tired of being chased. Brown was killed by a bullet that entered through the back of his left shoulder, pierced both lungs and exited through his right armpit.
Brown was 22 years old and a police officer for nine months. He asked to be assigned to the rough neighborhood where he grew up and shortly before his death was honored for stopping an armed robbery.
Andrews is now 18 years old and serving his sentence at an eastern Missouri prison in Bonne Terre.
Missouri Assistant Attorney General Evan Buchheim defended the life sentence Wednesday. He told the state high court that nearly every state has lifetime prison sentences and that the U.S. Supreme Court specifically permitted life sentences for juveniles in murder cases.
Buchheim argued there is little difference whether the punishment is selected or required by state law.
"It seems to me to be the same thing — a mandatory life without parole sentence or a sentence of life without parole," Buchheim said.
Nationwide, more than 2,200 teens have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, according to a 2007 report by the Equal Justice Initiative. The Montgomery, Ala.-based group represents juveniles, death row inmates and the indigent, and opposes the sentencing of young teens to life prison terms without the opportunity for parole.
Besides mandatory life sentences, the Missouri Supreme Court also considered the constitutionality of the state's system for deciding whether juveniles should be prosecuted as adults.
Under Missouri law, juveniles are handled by special courts that focus on improving behavior and are not treated like criminal cases.
Children as young as 12 can be charged with a felony as an adult depending on the circumstances of the case. A judge decides whether the defendant should be prosecuted as a juvenile or adult after considering 10 factors, including the seriousness of the alleged crime and the individual's age, sophistication and maturity.
Smith argued Wednesday that deciding whether to prosecute a teen as an adult or juvenile should be decided by a jury because the decision significantly affects the possible punishment.
The attorney general's office contends that a judge can decide whether a juvenile should be charged as an adult because juries only are required to decide the facts that affect criminal penalties.