The S.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday set aside the life without parole sentences of 15 young people who had been convicted of slayings that took place while they were juveniles.
The young people, now in jail or prison, must be given new sentencing hearings.
For various reasons, juveniles have less capacity for mature decision-making, and none of the 15 appellants in the case before the state Supreme Court received an individualized hearing “where the mitigating hallmark features of youth” were fully explored, the Supreme Court said in a 3-2 opinion.
“The petitioners (the 15 youthful offenders) are ... entitled to resentencing to allow the inmates to present evidence specific to their attributes of youth,” said the opinion for the majority, written by Justice Kay Hearn. Justices Don Beatty and Costa Pleicones concurred.
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After such a hearing, someone who was sentenced to life without parole could still be re-sentenced to life in prison, but their constitutional rights to have that element of their case considered will have been protected, Hearn wrote.
“Without question, the judge may still determine that life without parole is the appropriate sentence in some of these cases in light of other aggravating circumstances,” Hearn wrote.
But, she wrote, “Youth has constitutional significance. As such it must be afforded adequate weight in sentencing.”
The majority relied on a 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Miller v. Alabama, in which the high court held that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders were unconstitutional and violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
The dissenting losing judges were Chief Justice Jean Toal and Associate Justice John Kittredge, who argued among other things that trial judges did in fact examine the full circumstances of the youths’ cases before sentencing.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson lost the case.
In addition to the 15 petitioners, the ruling applies to similarly situated prisoners. McCullough estimates the number may be as high as “several dozen.”
The numerous winning lawyers, representing various defense and nonprofit entities, included capital punishment expert John Blume of Cornell Law School, and Joseph McCulloch, Diana Holt, John Nichols, all of Columbia.