The Supreme Court heard a plea for freedom Tuesday on behalf of more than 1,500 aging inmates who were sentenced to life in prison for murders committed before they were 18.
At issue was whether these former juvenile criminals deserve at least a chance to go free on parole if they no longer pose a danger.
But the justices appeared closely split, and several said that the court, for procedural reasons, should delay a ruling on whether a 2012 Supreme Court decision that struck down mandatory life terms for young criminals should be applied retroactively.
The court heard arguments in the case of Henry Montgomery, a 69-year old Louisiana inmate who at age 17 shot and killed a Baton Rouge police officer in November 1963, just days before the assassination of President Kennedy. He was given a life term with no chance for parole.
"This is about a basic sense of fairness. Many hundreds of individuals are being denied the benefit of a decision that fundamentally changed sentencing law," said Marsha Levick from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, one of the lawyers representing Montgomery.
Levick was referring to the court's narrow decision three years ago that imposing a mandatory life term with no parole on a young criminal who had committed a murder or joined in a crime that led to a homicide amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
The young "are less deserving of the most severe punishments ... even when they commit terrible crimes," said Justice Elena Kagan for a 5-4 majority in that ruling.
The ruling overturned the life terms given to a pair of 14-year-olds. It said judges must at least weigh a young defendant's age as a possible reason for imposing a lesser prison term.
But Kagan's opinion in Miller vs. Alabama did not flatly forbid such life terms in the future. Nor did it require states to look back to the past and offer new hearings to all prisoners who had been given life terms for juvenile crimes.
Since then, states have gone in different directions. California and six other states adopted new laws extending hearings for these prisoners. And the supreme courts in 12 states, including Florida, Illinois and Connecticut, decided the court's ruling applied retroactively and ordered new sentencing hearings for prisoners who received life terms when they were young.
But Pennsylvania, Michigan and Louisiana, which hold several hundred prisoners who could be affected, are among the states that refused to give them new hearings.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Montgomery vs. Louisiana to decide whether all the states must offer a sentencing or parole hearing to prisoners serving life term for crimes committed before they were 18.
Lawyers for Michigan and 15 other states urged the court to step back. They said the families of victims should not have to go through the pain of having the murderer's sentence reviewed. They said the states of Missouri, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia have a significant number of prisoners who would be affected by the outcome.
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