Next JLWOP Case on Conference List for Friday

Well, that didn’t take long. On Monday the parties asked the U.S. Supreme Court to drop the now-moot juvenile life-without-parole (JLWOP) case of the D.C. Sniper, Jr., as noted in this post. I expected the Court to take up the case of Newton v. Indiana, No. 17-1511, presenting the same issue. Sure enough, after nearly a year on hold pending Malvo, the Newton case is suddenly on the conference list for this Friday.

Petitions asking the Supreme Court to take up a case within its discretionary jurisdiction (which is most cases) are usually longshots, but I think this one just moved up to odds-on favorite.

Here are the facts of the case, as summarized in Indiana’s Brief in Opposition:

Just 45 days shy of his eighteenth birthday, Larry Newton came to the Ball State campus looking to kill someone. The identity of his victim was not particularly important, and Newton and two friends soon happened upon Christopher Coyle, a nineteen-year-old Ball State student. Newton and his friends forced Coyle into an alley, and Newton shot Coyle—at point-blank range, in the back of the young man’s head.

The State of Indiana brought a capital murder charge against Newton. To avoid the death penalty, Newton pleaded guilty and agreed to receive a sentence of life in prison without parole. The sentencing court accepted the sentence, finding it appropriate in light of Newton’s age, the senselessness of his crime, and the failure of previous efforts to rehabilitate him.

Newton now argues that his sentence is unlawful. He asks the Court to hear his case and announce that the Eighth Amendment confers to juveniles a substantive right to be free from all life-without-parole sentences—whether or not they are discretionary—absent a specific finding of incorrigibility.

Here are the questions presented, as restated by the State.

I. Whether Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), applies to a juvenile who has agreed to a sentence of life without parole.

II. Whether Miller applies to discretionary sentences of life without parole imposed for juvenile offenses.

III. Whether an evidentiary hearing is required to assess whether juveniles sentenced before Miller are irreparably corrupt.

Those who have not followed this line of cases in detail might wonder what this “irreparably corrupt” business is. Good question.

Miller v. Alabama was held retroactive to all cases, regardless of how long ago they became final judgments, in Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016). The Supreme Court’s retroactivity precedents establish that new rules of constitutional law made after a decision becomes final on direct appeal are virtually never retroactive if they are procedural rules but are retroactive if they are substantive rules.

Miller is plainly a procedural rule. Juveniles convicted of murder can be sentenced to life without parole but only upon a discretionary decision by the sentencer (usually the trial judge in noncapital cases). In Montgomery, the majority of the Court seemed determined to reach full retroactivity nonetheless.To pound the square peg of Miller into the round hole of substantive rules, Montgomery said that Miller said it had defined a class of offender categorically exempt from LWOP: juveniles whose crime does not “reflect[] irreparable corruption.”

If your reaction is “what the heck does that mean and how on earth is anyone supposed to determine it?” welcome to the club. The Supreme Court itself was, past tense, a charter member of that club. Montgomery quotes that phrase from Roper v. Simmons (2005), the case that categorically exempted under-18 murderers from the death penalty. But the full passage from Roper shows something quite different from the use of that phrase in Montgomery:

It is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption. See Steinberg & Scott 1014–1016. As we understand it, this difficulty underlies the rule forbidding psychiatrists from diagnosing any patient under 18 as having antisocial personality disorder, a disorder also referred to as psychopathy or sociopathy, and which is characterized by callousness, cynicism, and contempt for the feelings, rights, and suffering of others. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 701–706 (4th ed. text rev. 2000); see also Steinberg & Scott 1015. If trained psychiatrists with the advantage of clinical testing and observation refrain, despite diagnostic expertise, from assessing any juvenile under 18 as having antisocial personality disorder, we conclude that States should refrain from asking jurors to issue a far graver condemnation—that a juvenile offender merits the death penalty.

In 2005, the Supreme Court said we are not going to make the decision on the death penalty case-by-case after determining that an under-18 murderer’s “crime reflects irreparable corruption” because that can’t be done with any degree of reliability. In 2016, the Supreme Court [mis]interpreted its 2012 decision on juvenile LWOP to require precisely the finding it said was unfeasible in 2005.

This is a giant mess of the Supreme Court’s own making. Only they can clean it up. Let’s hope they do so soon and not get derailed by the mootness of the Malvo case.