The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider putting a new national limit on life sentences for juveniles who are age 14 or younger.
Nationwide, there are 73 prisoners who are serving life terms with no possible parole for their role in homicides committed when they were 14 or younger.
The justices voted to hear appeals from two of those inmates — one from Alabama and one from Arkansas — to decide whether such a sentence for a very young criminal violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Last year the justices ruled that it was unconstitutional for Florida and other states to impose a life term with no parole for criminals under age 18 whose crimes did not involve a homicide. The ruling in Graham vs. Florida did not say these criminals deserved to go free, but it said they were entitled to a parole hearing at some time to decide whether they were no longer a threat to society.
The two new cases involve young men who were convicted of murder or involvement in a homicide at age 14.
Evan Miller of Alabama was removed from his home at age 10 because of his father's violent abuse. He was living in a trailer park when he and a 16-year-old fought with a drunken neighbor and set his home on fire, killing him. The older youth blamed the 14-year-old for the crime, and Miller was convicted and condemned to spend his life in prison.
In Arkansas, Kuntrell Jackson was imprisoned for his part in the attempted robbery of a video store in which another teenager shot and killed the store clerk. Jackson was not accused of firing the gun or intending to commit murder, but he was nonetheless given a mandatory life term with no parole.
Alabama civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, who brought the earlier juvenile cases to the high court, filed appeals on behalf of Miller and Jackson and urged the justices to declare unconstitutional such life terms for criminals who are 14 or younger.
He said the vast majority of states had never imposed life terms for such young offenders. Only 19 states have permitted such punishments, including California; Illinois; Pennsylvania, with the highest number of cases; and Florida, the second-highest. California has since changed its law.
The outcome in the latest cases almost certainly depends on Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. In 2005, Kennedy wrote a 5-4 decision that abolished the death penalty for criminals who were under age 18. And last year, the four liberal justices joined his 5-4 opinion in the Florida case.
The new cases will be heard in February or March, and a ruling will be handed down by summer.
Meanwhile, the justices cleared the way for Texas to execute an African American murderer in Houston whose sentencing jury was told that blacks posed a greater danger of future violence.
Because of that questionable testimony, the high court granted a stay of execution for Duane Edward Buck on Sept. 15. But after studying the case more closely, the court dismissed his appeal on a 7-2 vote.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. noted that it was his defense lawyer, not the prosecutor, who injected the "race-related testimony" into the case. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented, saying a death sentence "marred by racial overtones" deserved further review.