Wednesday, December 9, 2009

LWOP Upheld for Juvenile Capital Murder Case

The Fourth Court of Appeals (San Antonio), who, by the way, issues the most aesthetically pleasing opinions, just upheld a Cruel and Unusual Punishment challenge Texas' sentencing scheme (pre-Sept 1, 2009) that imposed a mandatory life without parole (LWOP) punishment on a juvenile capital murder offender.  Meadoux v. State.

Appellant (16 years old), who was questioned for over an hour at the police station, ultimately confessed to killing his 2 friends (accidentally, of course).  The police officers never advised Appellant of his Miranda rights, maintaining that he was could terminate the "interview" and leave anytime he wished.  Accordingly, Appellant challenged, at trial and on appeal, the admission of his incriminating statement, as well as the Texas sentencing scheme of mandatory LWOP.

After a lengthy (and intriguing) recitation of the facts of the case, the Court spent another 11 pages discussing what is well-established precedent.  "Viewing all the evidence in the light most favorable to the court's ruling" the Court affirmed the decision of the trial court that Appellant was not "in custody" and therefore, the officers were not required to read him his Miranda rights.  Furthermore, because Appellant was not "in custody" the trial court did not have to submit a question to the jury regarding whether the confession was "voluntary."

If you want a crash course on juvenile criminal procedure, including the admissibility of statements, whether an interrogation is "custodial" and whether Miranda warnings are required, check out the full text of the case here.  Justice Speedlin does an excellent job in her presentation of the law and application of the facts.  Really, in my view, it could have gone either way at the trial level, but once the trial judge has spoken, it would have been a stretch for the appellate court to deviate.

I see all of this as a side issue, because, for me (and possibly the CCA), the thrust of this case was the issue of the constitutionality of mandatory LWOP for juvenile capital murder offenders.  I hate that the Court gave such little attention to this issue (4 measly pages).  As the Court notes, the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments on the question of whether LWOP for a non-homicide offense committed by a juvenile is "cruel and unusual." Sullivan and Graham.

I know what you are thinking... "the Supremes are only considering the constitutionality of LWOP for a non-homicide offense and they will not likely extend any opinion beyond the issue presented."  Right you are, but if (and that's a big IF) they hold that LWOP for a juvenile is unconstitutional as it applies to non-homicide offenses, we are only a small step (and a slight shift in public opinion or court ideological makeup) away from LWOP being unconstitutional for all juvenile cases.  If you'll remember, it wasn't too long ago that a state could execute a mentally retarded person.

This hardly stands to cause a big fuss in Texas, because, as you may know, Texas recently amended section 12.31(a) of the penal code which now requires a mandatory Life sentence for juvenile cases rather than LWOP.  But be on the lookout for U.S. Supreme Court opinions embracing this issue (Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida), for, while they are unlikely to affect current TX cases, they could bring on a firestorm of habeus petitions.