Oral Argument Preview: Discretionary Life Without Parole Sentence for a Juvenile Homicide Offender? State of Ohio v. Eric Long.

Update: on March 12, 2014, the Supreme Court handed down a merit decision in this case.  read the analysis here.

Read an analysis of the oral argument of this case here.

On June 11, 2013, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of State of Ohio v. Eric Long, 2012-1410. At issue in this case is whether, if not mandatory, the state can impose a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender after the United States Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, and, if so, how are trial courts to consider youth as a mitigating factor.

Case Background

In March, 2009, Eric Long was involved in two different shootings, along with adults Fonta Whipple and Jashawn Clark. In the first shooting, Long, Whipple, and Clark shot into a house multiple times using assault rifles and a 9-millimeter handgun after an altercation at a bar. As a result of the shooting, two individuals were injured, one with a gunshot wound to the base of the neck and the other with a gunshot wound to the face. Two weeks later, Long and the adults were involved in a highway shooting on I-75 after a fight in a bar. During this shooting, Long and the others shot and killed two passengers in another vehicle, which subsequently hit a guardrail and rolled over several times. When Long was arrested, he was in possession of the 9-millimeter handgun. At the time of the shootings, Long was 17 years old.

Long was convicted by a jury of three counts of felonious assault, one count of improper discharge of a firearm into a habitation, two counts of aggravated murder, two counts of having a weapon while under a disability, and one count of carrying a concealed weapon. Long and his adult accomplices were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

On appeal, Long argued that his sentence was cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment because he was a juvenile at the time of the shootings and contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama—which came out after Long was sentenced at trial court—holding that imposing mandatory sentences of life without parole on a juvenile violated the Eighth Amendment.  The First District Court of Appeals affirmed Long’s sentence because the sentence was within the statutory limit and was, therefore, not cruel and unusual. The First District also distinguished the case from Miller because Long’s sentence was not mandatory and the trial court was free to consider and did consider Long’s youth in imposing sentence.

Key Precedent

Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012) (imposing a mandatory sentence of life without parole on a juvenile is cruel and unusual punishment and thereby violates the Eighth Amendment).

Graham v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010) (juvenile non-homicide offenders cannot be given a sentence of life without parole).

In re C.P., 131 Ohio St.3d 513 (2012) (a statute imposing automatic, lifelong registration and notification requirements on juvenile sex offenders violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in the Ohio Constitution).

Long’s Argument

Long first argues that he did not commit a homicide offense, and therefore under Graham v. Florida, the court cannot impose a life sentence. Long argues that the jury was given a complicity instruction for the I-75 killings.  The jury  found only that he had participated in the killings, but did not make a finding on whether Long had the required mental state to commit a homicide offense. As a consequence, the holding in Graham prevents his life without parole sentence and requires a new sentencing hearing.

Long further argues that even if he committed a homicide offense, he still deserves a new sentencing hearing because the trial court did not consider youth as a mitigating factor as required under Miller.  Long contends that he was grouped together with his adult accomplices which prevented the trial court from taking into account his youth and its effect on culpability. For support, Long cites the record and the lack of any explicit statement regarding his youth as a mitigating factor.

Lastly, Long argues that the Ohio Constitution, Article I Section 9 prohibits sentencing a child to life without parole for any offense. Long references the recent In re C.P. decision in which the Supreme Court of Ohio stated that the Ohio Constitution provides protection independent of the protection provided by the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment and struck down a law requiring lifelong registration and notification for juvenile sex offenders. Long argues that juveniles are provided greater protection under the Ohio Constitution because juveniles are less culpable for their bad acts and that their bad acts are less likely to reveal unredeemable corruptness.

State’s Argument

The State argues that Long was charged with a homicide offense, and specifically points to the trial record to show that the jury was not given a complicity instruction as to the I-75 killings.

The State further argues that Long’s sentence was in compliance with Miller because the sentence was within the judge’s discretion and was not a part of a mandatory penalty scheme which would prevent a sentencer from considering youth as a mitigating factor. The State also contends that Long’s youth was considered in the sentencing but that it was balanced against other negative factors such as Long’s extensive criminal history. Further, the State argues that the social science research on juvenile culpability is irrelevant to the legal question in the case, noting that 44 states permit sentences of life without parole for juveniles. While conceding that such a sentence is rarely imposed, the state also cites the lack of a national consensus against it.

Lastly, the State argues that Long’s sentence does not violate the Ohio Constitution because of the allowance of judicial discretion in imposing the penalty, and that In re C.P. is distinguishable. In re C.P. dealt with a mandatory registration and notification scheme which is not analogous to a sentence of imprisonment within a judge’s discretion.

Long’s Proposed Proposition of Law

The Eighth Amendment requires trial courts to consider youth as a mitigating factor when sentencing a child to life without parole for a homicide.

Amicus Briefs in support of Long

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief which contends that the Eighth Amendment requires that Long’s case be remanded for individualized consideration of the “distinctive attributes of youth,” and that the principles of Miller apply whether a life without parole sentence is mandatory or discretionary.

The Juvenile Law Center also wrote an amicus in support of Long which contends that Miller requires an individualized sentencing determination based on a juvenile’s overall culpability, in keeping with Miller’s mandate that juveniles are fundamentally different from adults and less deserving of the harshest punishments. The Center also argues that Long’s sentence is unconstitutional because the court failed to account for Long’s juvenile status, and that the sentence of life without parole can only be imposed on the rare group of juveniles for whom such a sentence would be appropriate. Absent such a finding, a juvenile offender must be given a meaningful chance for release.

Amicus Brief in support of the State

The Ohio Attorney General filed an amicus in support of the State arguing that the Eighth Amendment does not require a sentencer to state on the record that it considered an offender’s youth before imposing a sentence of life without parole. The AG also argues that since Long’s sentence was discretionary rather than mandatory, it did not run afoul of Miller.

Student Contributor: Cameron Downer

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