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Supreme Court Grapples With Life Sentences For Juveniles

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Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

Politics

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday in a case stemming from a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said juveniles convicted of murder cannot face mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Florida court considered the Bay County case of Rebecca Falcon, who was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she committed in 1997, when she was 15 years old.

The arguments focused on whether the U. S. Supreme Court meant for its 2012 ruling in a case known as Miller v. Alabama to be retroactive. In the Miller ruling, the U. S. justices found that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, juveniles convicted of murder can still face life sentences, but judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders’ maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence.

If the Miller ruling is retroactive, then hundreds of prisoners who were sentenced as juveniles to life without parole could be entitled to have their punishments reviewed by courts.

“We have every child sentenced to life without parole in these cases, with no review of any factor about their youth and the attendant circumstances,” Falcon’s attorney, Karen M. Gottlieb, told Florida justices Thursday. “So their lack of judgment, impetuousness, immaturity, the prospect for rehabilitation and reform, the outside influences, peer influences — none of that has been considered.”

The question of retroactivity is essential to Falcon’s contention that the Miller ruling opens the door for her to receive a new sentence after serving about 15 years, reportedly as a model prisoner.

According to court documents, Falcon had been abused since age 5. “Rebecca’s childhood, up to the age of 15 years, had been characterized by sexual abuse, being led by older males, ‘untreated effects of trauma’ and ‘immature thinking,’ ” said a 2013 brief filed by Gottlieb, Elliot Scherker and Paolo Annino.

Falcon’s attorneys also wrote that in her time behind bars, Falcon has earned a high school diploma, taken college correspondence courses and become active in a faith-based program. She has also shown remorse, writing to the widow of the man she killed in order to apologize.

Tricia Meggs Pate, representing the state, acknowledged that Falcon “has presented some mitigating factors.”

But Meggs Pate also argued that if the Miller ruling were applied retroactively, it would create a significant challenge for “the administration of justice” because the cases would have to be reconstituted after as much as 20 years.

The arguments come as Florida lawmakers consider changes in state law to deal with the sentencing issues. This week they considered U.S. Supreme Court decisions that involve two types of juvenile defendants. One is Miller, which applies to defendants convicted of murder. The other refers to a 2010 case, known as Graham v. Florida, in which the U.S. Supreme Court banned life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of serious non-homicide crimes.

Since those rulings, the Legislature has been trying to agree on sentencing guidelines for the two types of juvenile defendants.

But without guidelines in place, the courts have been looking to the Legislature, and Thursday was no different.

“Would the availability of parole cure the Miller constitutionality issue?” Chief Justice Ricky Polston asked Meggs Pate.

“At this point, the Legislature, I believe, has to act,” she replied. “We have a statute that’s unconstitutional in its entirety as applied to a class.”

On Wednesday, a juvenile sentencing bill (SB 384) passed its third Senate committee. The bill represents a compromise by sponsor Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, granting the possibility of a judicial review to all juveniles convicted of murder except those who actually pulled the trigger.

If the bill in its current form becomes law, Falcon would not be eligible for a review of her case.

“The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.”

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