Speakers debate life sentences for juveniles at Missouri Law Review symposium

Friday, March 8, 2013 | 8:35 p.m. CST; updated 8:59 p.m. CST, Friday, March 8, 2013

COLUMBIA — Life without parole is one of the harshest sentences a judge can pass down, surpassed only by death. For that reason, the sentence is reserved for society’s harshest crimes, such as murder.

A watershed U.S. Supreme Court decision last year ruled that no state can have mandatory life without parole for juveniles.

Speakers at the annual Missouri Law Review symposium Friday discussed the Miller v. Alabama decision in front of an audience of more than 100. They agreed the decision is a sign of the justice system’s willingness to take psychological research into account. 

Will Berry, as assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi, said juveniles have "diminished culpability" for crimes and a higher ability to be reformed.

“This is about science,” said keynote speaker Judge Nancy Gertner, a professor at the Harvard School of Law. The research, she said, shows the human brain is not fully developed until after a person reaches adulthood. 

The U.S. Supreme Court cited that research in its ruling that mandatory life without parole sentences were cruel and unusual punishment, as well as unconstitutional according to the Eighth Amendment.

“I don’t think that the court has gone far enough in exercising its constitutional authority to define what is cruel and unusual punishment,” Gertner said. “I think they ought to do more.”

The speakers debated whether judges or legislators should decide the definitions and penalties for crimes.

MU law professor Frank Bowman said it’s “universally held” that the legislature holds that authority. The court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama is significant because it conflicts with that idea, he said.

Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University, said sentencing should be up to the judge, not the legislature.

Gertner said judges should have more leeway to decide a sentence. She said she'd heard of someone sentenced to life in prison for stealing three golf clubs under California’s “three strikes” law.

“Legislature doesn’t do proportionality analysis,” she said.

There are 84 prisoners serving life sentences in Missouri who were juveniles when they committed their offense, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections

Juveniles can still be sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. That was the case for Alyssa Bustamante, who was 15 when she murdered 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten in 2009. Bustamante will spend 35 years in prison before she’s eligible for parole.

It has been illegal for juveniles to be sentenced to death since 2005.

That ruling had implications in Ryan Ferguson’s 2005 trial. He and Charles “Chuck” Erickson could not be put to death for murdering Columbia Daily Tribune editor Kent Heitholt in 2001. Instead, Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years in prison, and Erickson 25.

For years, the U.S. Supreme Court has been shortening the list of offenders who can legally be put to death for their crimes, Berry said. Rapists, mentally disabled people, non-homicide offenders and others were, one by one, removed from that list.

“That language opens the door to a lot of different potential avenues for constitutional challenges,” Berry said of the trend. “The question is, where are they going next?"

Supervising editor is Richard Webner.

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