The Supreme Court made the right call two years ago when it found unconstitutional state laws mandating a life sentence without parole for minors convicted of grievous crimes. But in that decision, Miller vs. Alabama, the court left unresolved a crucial detail: Did the decision apply only to future cases, or did it extend to minors already serving life sentences? The court now has a chance to answer that question and to complete this important act of justice and decency by making the ruling retroactive.
The current case involves George Toca of Louisiana, who had just turned 17 in 1984 when, police said, he accidentally shot and killed an accomplice during a robbery. Toca maintains that someone else killed his friend (the Innocence Project has taken on the case), but that's not the key issue in the appeal. After 30 years behind bars, Toca argues that he's a different person than the child who was imprisoned in 1985 and that the Miller ruling means he should be able to offer mitigating evidence at a new sentencing hearing. Unsurprisingly, the state of Louisiana disagrees.
The Miller case involved a young man convicted of an even more heinous crime. In 2003, Miller, then 14, and a friend beat a neighbor with a baseball bat, then torched a house trailer with the victim still inside. The Supreme Court previously had recognized that, biologically and psychologically, young minds are not fully formed and, among other things, teens have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. Given that, the court ruled in Miller that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for minors violated the 8th Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Sentences in such cases, the court held, must be tailored to the individual circumstances of the crime.
So if it's unconstitutional now to automatically imprison children for life, surely the same constitutional conflict exists for those sentenced before the Miller decision.
The Toca case hinges on whether the Miller decision, which bans the application of state law to a class of defendants, constituted a substantive change to the law and thus applies retroactively. Conversely, if it regards Miller as only a procedural change — a shift from optional to automatic sentencing — it might only apply prospectively. So far, state and lower federal courts have been divided over which interpretation is right.
It is clear to us that Miller calls for more than a procedural adjustment; it voids state laws by banning automatic sentences and instead compels judges to make discretionary decisions. Ruling for Toca does not mean he will be released, just that he — and others similarly sentenced while still kids — will have a chance to make the argument that the man is different from the child and that his sentence should be reconsidered. Fairness and justice demand it.