Supreme Court Declines to Consider Challenge to Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles

Ahmad Bright was sixteen years old when he was involved in the shooting death of 19-year-old Corey Davis in 2006.[1] In one sense, Ahmad was the last person you would expect to be caught up in a murder: he was a hardworking and ambitious full-scholarship student at Cambridge’s prestigious Buckingham, Browne & Nichols School.[2] He was a talented tennis player and was touring top-tier colleges. But in another sense, the turn of events wasn’t surprising at all. Ahmad’s troubled home life consisted of housing insecurity, an absentee father, and a drug dealing brother. In fact, the deadly altercation occurred when Ahmad’s brother hired a friend to kill Davis—another drug dealer—because Davis owed him money.[3]

Ahmad was convicted of second-degree murder on a joint venture theory. The prosecution did not contend that Ahmad killed Davis, but rather that he drove the car to and from the murder.[4] In Massachusetts, a second-degree murder conviction triggers a mandatory sentence of life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 15 years.[5] Ahmad has spent the last eight years in prison. All of his appeals have been unsuccessful, including his recent petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, which was denied last Monday.[6]

Ahmad’s petition to the Supreme Court relied on its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which declared life sentences without the possibility of parole unconstitutional for children under the age of eighteen.[7] In Miller, the court reaffirmed its stance that “children are constitutionally different from adults,” and that a sentencer must “have the ability to consider the mitigating qualities of youth.”[8] To do otherwise would violate the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”[9] It was this line of reasoning that had previously led the Court in 2005 to declare unconstitutional the imposition of the death penalty on juveniles.[10]

While Ahmad’s sentence was life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, his lawyers argued that the Massachusetts sentencing scheme is inconsistent with the principles of Miller.[11] Because Ahmad was convicted of second-degree murder, his sentence was statutorily prescribed; the judge could not take account of Ahmad’s youth at all.[12] Indeed, any mandatory sentence inherently removes a judge’s ability to individualize. And “individualization” has been the Supreme Court’s buzzword in this line of cases; as Justice Kagan wrote for the majority in Miller, “our individualized sentencing cases that youth matters for purposes of meting out the law’s most serious punishments.”[13]

Whether or not a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole is one of our system’s most “serious punishments” is admittedly a normative question. In a brief to the Supreme Court opposing Ahmad’s request for review, the government reiterated the Massachusetts appellate court’s opinion that because a parole board may review Ahmad’s sentence in the future, a life sentence is constitutional.[14] This implies that the Massachusetts courts believe the opportunity for parole renders a life sentence something less than a “most serious punishment.”

Ahmad’s lawyers disagreed. They argued that the mere possibility of discretionary parole does not satisfy the constitutional prerogative of individualization for juveniles. This is especially true in Massachusetts, where parole rates have dropped precipitously[15] in the past several years under a reconstituted “tough on crime” board.[16] Ahmad’s lawyers also made the broader argument that parole board decisions in general—which can be highly susceptible to political influences, notes the American Law Institute[17]—are no substitute for the individualized determination of a judge.

Unfortunately the Supreme Court denied Ahmad’s petition, which will certainly be devastating for Ahmad and his family. The denial comes a little under two years after Ahmad’s failed petition to former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick for a commuted sentence.[18] But the Court’s decision not to weigh in on the constitutionality of mandatory life sentences with the possibility of parole for juveniles has consequences beyond Ahmad. Judges will continue to impose life sentences on children, without the ability to consider individual circumstances—like “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences” —that the Supreme Court has deemed highly relevant in fashioning juvenile sentences.[19]

A mandatory sentence to life imprisonment with or without the possibility of parole may be a distinction without a difference. This is especially true in the context of increasingly harsh parole boards, like the one in Massachusetts Ahmad will face in a few years. (Troublingly, the fact that Ahmad has appealed his conviction means he is even less likely to be paroled.) If we truly believe that children deserve individualized sentences, then the Supreme Court made a mistake last week. If and when a similar challenge comes before the Court again, it should address the issue head on.

 

[1] Ahmad maintains his innocence.

[2] See Petition for Writ of Certiorari at 4, Bright v. Massachusetts, No. 16-579 (U.S. Oct. 28, 2016).

[3] See id. at 5.

[4] See id. at 6.

[5] See id. at 7.

[6] Bright v. Massachusetts, SCOTUSblog, at http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/bright-v-massachusetts/

[7] See 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2468.

[8] Id. at 2464–66.

[9] U.S. Const. amend. VIII

[10] See Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

[11] See Brief for Petitioner, supra note 2, at 10.

[12] See id. at 14.

[13] Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. at 2471.

[14] See Respondent’s Brief in Opposition at 7, Bright v. Massachusetts, No. 16-578 (U.S. Oct. 28, 2016).

[15] In 2009, the overall parole rate was 78%; just two years later, it had plummeted to 26%. The rate is even lower for those prisoners with life sentences—just 12% in 2011. See Patricia Garin, et al., White Paper: The Current State of Parole in Massachusetts, 2–3 (Feb. 2013), http://www.cjpc.org/2013/White-Paper-Addendum-2.25.13.pdf; see also Gordon Haas et. al., The Massachusetts Parole Board, i (2012), http://www.cjpc.org/2012/MA-Parole-Board-2012.pdf.

[16] See Brief for Petitioner, supra note 2, at 18.

[17] Id.

[18] See Thomas Farragher, Slim chance for 2nd chance commutation, Boston Globe, Nov. 5, 2014, at https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/11/05/governor-patrick-weighs-request-for-commutation-from-man-convicted-homicide/7dJAYcuXa4wGQBOEZ51xaP/story.html

[19] See Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. at 2468.

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Samantha is a 2L at HLS. She is interested criminal justice reform and plans to pursue a career in public defense. She currently works as a student attorney at the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project and is a co-director of the Harvard ACLU's Criminal Law Reform group. During her 1L summer, Samantha worked on state habeas corpus petitions for death row inmates at the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs in Austin, Texas. Prior to law school she worked as a paralegal at a criminal defense law firm, and received her B.A. in History from Brown University

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