About 40 juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole in the state of South Carolina recently won the right to new sentencing hearings, thanks to Cornell Law Professors John Blume, Keir Weyble and Sheri Johnson, and students in the Law School’s Juvenile Justice Clinic.
On Nov. 12, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled 3-2 that the juveniles’ life-without-parole sentences were cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment and the corresponding provision in South Carolina’s constitution. The South Carolina Supreme Court acknowledged, in effect, that “children who commit crimes are different than adults, for sentencing purposes,” says Blume. That viewpoint, to which most of the world adheres, has gained widespread acceptance in the United States in recent years, and it is central to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama and several earlier cases.
In the Miller ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said, “kids are different in ways that affect their culpability,” says Blume. “The court said that young people are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressure because they have limited control over their environment; they’re less mature and undeveloped, thus they’re more likely to behave impulsively; and their character isn’t as well-formed as that of adults, so it’s hard to tell whether any particular act [they might have committed] is a product of their character or the circumstances.” Because of that, Blume explains, the U.S. Supreme Court “said that any sentencing proceeding involving a juvenile offender in which life without parole is an option needs to be individualized and analogous to the type of sentencing in capital cases.”
Recognizing two years ago that implications of the Miller decision would be far-reaching, Blume, who has practiced law extensively in South Carolina, says, “I became concerned, because there’s no central statewide public defender system in that state, that there was no entity responsible for litigating the implications of Miller for juvenile offenders there.”
Blume, Weyble and Johnson stepped into the breach. In fall 2012 they created a Juvenile Justice Clinic at Cornell Law School for eight law students. The team of faculty and students filed Freedom of Information Act requests to determine who and where the inmates were, obtained their sentencing transcripts, cases and records, talked to their trial lawyers and interviewed the inmates themselves and many of their families, Blume says.
Following those actions, Blume says, “we filed a class petition for a writ of certiorari in which we asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to order new sentencing hearings for all those juveniles, because when they were first sentenced, their hearings lacked the individualized consideration that took into account their characteristics of youth, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2012 Miller ruling.” (Unlike many states, South Carolina allows petitioners to file directly with its supreme court.)
“The ruling in our favor states that that every juvenile sentenced to life without parole in South Carolina is entitled to move within the next year to be resentenced,” says Blume.
While an appeal of the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court by South Carolina’s district attorney is possible, Blume surmises that its chances aren’t strong in light of the high court’s Miller ruling and related cases. In the meantime, “we’ll be working with lawyers on the ground in South Carolina to make sure all these people who were juveniles when they were sentenced to life without parole get adequate representation at the next stage,” he says.
Freelancer Linda Brandt Myers '64, MFA '99, is a former Cornell Chronicle writer.