Friday, December 3, 2010

Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentence Affirmed

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment forbids the execution of juveniles (i.e. anyone under the age of 18). At that time, the juveniles in Texas that were on death row had their sentences commuted to Life with parole. Also in 2005, the Texas Legislature amended Section 12.31(a) of the Texas Penal Code to require Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences for capital cases in which the State does not seek the death penalty. This new LWOP provision applied to offenses committed on or after September 1, 2005.

Consequently, because juveniles could no longer be sentenced to death, all juveniles convicted of a capital crime in Texas were automatically sentenced to LWOP. In 2009, however, the legislature again amended section 12.31(a), to provide, in relevant part:
An individual adjudged guilty of a capital felony in a case in which the state does not seek the death penalty shall be punished by imprisonment in the [TDCJ] for life [i.e. with parole], if the individual’s case was transferred to the court under Section 54.02, Family Code.
The new life imprisonment (with parole) ceiling on juvenile capital offenses was not applied retroactively. The legislature specifically provided that the amendment applied only to an offense committed on or after September 1, 2009.

Chris Joshua Meadoux, the subject of a recent Court of Criminal Appeals opinion, was a juvenile capital offender sentenced to LWOP for a double murder that occurred in 2007. Unfortunately for him, his offense was committed during the 4 year window in which LWOP was the required punishment for a juvenile capital offender. He complained on appeal that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment because the 2009 amendment reducing LWOP to life indicates that LWOP is a cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles. His specific arguments on appeal were:
  1. Juveniles were less morally culpable (i.e. blameworthy) for their crimes than are adult offenders;
  2. Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole did not serve as a measurable deterrent for juveniles; and
  3. The Legislature’s recent amendment of the Texas Penal Code Section 12.31(a) to provide for life imprisonment with the possibility of parole for juvenile capital offenders signified that the evolving standard of decenecy, at least in Texas, forbade the categorical assessment of LWOP for juvenile capital offenders.
Appellant requested that his case be remanded back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing in which life imprisonment would be the maximum penalty.

The 4th District Court of Appeals (San Antonio) held that the Eight Amendment did not bar LWOP in Appellant’s case, as his crimes were committed during the time in which LWOP was the required punishment. In its opinion of November 17, 2010, the CCA agreed, holding that:
(1) Meadoux has not established that there is presently a national consensus against imposing life without parole on a juvenile for the offense of capital murder. (2) A juvenile capital offender’s moral culpability, even if diminished as compared to that of an adult capital offender, is still great. (3) Life without parole is a severe sentence, especially for a juvenile. (4) Life without parole for juvenile capital offenders finds justification in the penological goals of retribution and incapacitation but not in the goals of deterrence or rehabilitation. Considering the balancing of these four factors, we conclude that Meaduox has not carried his burden of showing that, according to contemporary national standards of decency, the punishment of life without parole for juvenile capital offenders is grossly disproportionate to the offense.
Judge Meyers penned a dissenting opinion and was joined by Judge Johnson. They would hold that because the Legislature subsequently determined that LWOP is inappropriate for juvenile offenders, the sentence in Appellant’s case is unreasonably harsh.

I won’t make a lot of friends with my opinion of this holding, because I think the court got it right. In fact, I think the Legislature got it wrong in 2009. I believe that LWOP should still be an available punishment for juvenile capital offenders, but as an option, with life as the other alternative. We should let the jury decide whether LWOP or life is appropriate in each case. In this case, Meadoux committed a double murder and then tried to burn the bodies in a house fire to destroy the evidence. He got what he deserved.