Thursday, August 1st, 2019

Mandatory Life Sentences for Murders Committed by 18-Year-Olds and Over Do Not Violate the Eighth Amendment

In Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 465 (2012), the Supreme Court held “that mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.” Today, the Second Circuit declined to extend Miller to cover three defendants who were between 18 and 22 when they committed murders and conspiracy-to-murder in aid of racketeering. The Court noted that “the Supreme Court has repeatedly chosen in the Eighth Amendment context to draw th[e] line at the age of 18,” which “is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood.”

The Circuit also rejected a separate argument raised by one of the defendants: that his mandatory life sentence was cruel and unusual punishment because his murder convictions were premised on Pinkerton liability, rather than personal commission of the murders.

The Circuit held that the argument, though “by no means frivolous,” was foreclosed by Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991). First, to the extent the challenge was to the mandatory nature of the life sentence, Harmelin provided “a complete answer:” “There can be no serious contention …that a sentence which is not otherwise cruel and unusual becomes so simply because it is mandatory.” Id. at 995. Second, to the extent the defendant was arguing that, under Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982), his mandatory life sentence was cruel and unusual because he did not himself kill, attempt to kill, or intend to kill, Enmund was distinguishable because it was a capital case, and “death is different” from life imprisonment. Harmelin declared that the Supreme Court’s death penalty jurisprudence “will not [be] extend[ed] … further.” 501 U.S. at 994. Accordingly, Harmelin, which Miller expressly declined to overrule, foreclosed the defendant’s argument.

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Categories: Eighth Amendment, life
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