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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

U.S. Supreme Court Asked to Hear Case Challenging Mandatory Life Without Parole for Severely Disabled Teenagers

Yesterday I filed a petition for certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court seeking review of the question of whether a 2012 decision is retroactive and also asking the Court to clarify that the decision applies to teens with severe mental disabilities.

The 2012 decision, Miller v Alabama, held that juveniles under 18 are entitled to an individualized sentencing process, and can't be sentenced to mandatory life without parole. Life without parole is a die-in-prison sentence. The Supreme Court is hearing argument next week, October 13,  in a case asking the Court to make the 2012 decision retroactive. More than 2,000 prisoners in the U.S. remain in prison having been sentenced to life without parole. Obviously, many are now in middle or old age for something done as a teenager. The Court's 2012 decision discussed at length how "children are different" in terms of vulnerability, maturity, brain development, etc.
My client, Kenneth Davenport, committed murders when he was 18 years and four months old. He was severely mentally ill and psychotic at the time. His sentencing was held in abeyance as he was promptly sent to a mental hospital where he remained for four years.

We are asking the Supreme Court, in addition to making the 2012 decision retroactive, to decide that marginally older teenagers be held entitled to individualized sentencing (not mandatory) when they were severely mentally disabled at the time of the trial, and especially where they were considered juveniles under state law. Pennsylvania defines minor at someone 18 and under (like Davenport), not under 18.

We suggest that the Court could hear the case on its own, or hold it in the wings pending decision in the already pending case.

The petition for certiorari: available from me. Will soon be available on the scotusblog web site.

From the Petition:

Clarifying that Miller’s outer boundary has some flexibility in extreme situations, such as severe mental disability, is reasonable and practical, both with regard to Davenport and to others similarly situated.

The Court has recognized that disabilities makes a difference when it comes to a sentence of death. Atkins v. Virginia, 526 U.S. 304 (2002). Just as children are different when it comes to life without parole, children who are severely disabled are different enough to support flexibility in defining who is a juvenile.

As Miller teaches, life without parole is an “especially harsh punishment for a juvenile” under all circumstances. It is especially cruel and harsh for a teenager with severe mental illness and psychosis.

Permitting severe disabilities to be considered for the marginally older teenager provides a safeguard against a harsh and, for these teens, cruel imprisonment until death. Individualized sentencing must include consideration of such extreme conditions as severe mental illness and psychosis when determining if a die-in-prison sentence is to be imposed.

The crimes took place 42 years ago, at a time when Davenport was 18 years and four months old, severely mentally ill and psychotic. At 61, he is serving a mandatory life without parole sentence.  If Miller is not retroactive, and does not apply to him, he will die in prison without there having ever been a review of either his circumstances at the time, including his severe mental illness and psychosis, or of any remorse, personal development or rehabilitation, in the decades since his family’s deaths. Neither deterrence nor punishment justify denial to Davenport of Miller individualized sentencing.