A judge is set to decide the punishment for an Alabama man, sentenced to life in prison for a murder he committed at age 14, and whose case later led to a ban on mandatory life sentences for juveniles.
The judge will decide Tuesday if Evan Miller should be given an opportunity at parole one day or if he should die in prison because of a crime he committed as a teenager.
Miller was 14 in 2003 when he and another teen beat Cole Cannon with a baseball bat before setting fire to his trailer, a crime for which he was sentenced to a mandatory life sentence. The judge could resentence Miller, now 32, to life without parole or allow parole after 30 years.
The Supreme Court in 2012 ruled in Miller's case that mandatory life 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 punishment. While other juvenile lifers have seen their sentences reduced, Miller's case had lingered without a decision.
In the 2012 opinion in Miller’s case, justices ordered states and the federal government to allow judges and juries to consider a juvenile’s age and life factors when they hand down sentences for some of the harshest crimes, instead of making life in prison without parole automatic. Miller was high on drugs and alcohol consumed with the adult victim at the time of the slaying, justices noted.
"Miller’s stepfather physically abused him; his alcoholic and drug-addicted mother neglected him; he had been in and out of foster care as a result; and he had tried to kill himself four times, the first when he should have been in kindergarten," the court wrote in the majority opinion.
At an earlier resentencing hearing, Miller’s lawyers cited his childhood of physical abuse and neglect and argued that at 14, his brain was not fully developed.
State lawyers argued Miller deserves a sentence of life without parole.
"His chronological age may have been fourteen at the time of the crime; however, his actions are those of an adult who brutally and mercilessly took the life of Cole Cannon in a heinous and vicious manner," state lawyers wrote.
The Supreme Court had been moving toward greater mercy for juveniles over more than a decade, first ending the death penalty for people under 18 and then reducing the universe of people who could get life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. But in a departure from that trend, the court last week held that judges do not have to determine that a juvenile offender is beyond hope of rehabilitation before ruling that he should spend the rest of his life in prison.