What’s on Their Minds: 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.

On June 11, 2013, the Supreme Court heard 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 part of the sentencing process.

Case Background

Eric Long, then seventeen, was involved in two different shootings along with two adults.  The parties differ on his role—whether as an accomplice or as a principal offender.  Assault weapons were used in the crimes. In the second incident, two people were killed.  Long was convicted of a number of felonies, including two counts of aggravated murder. Long and his adult accomplices were sentenced at the same time 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 was contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama—which came out after Long was sentenced—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 it 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. Read the oral argument preview of this case here.

At Oral Argument

Long’s Argument

Trial courts must consider youth as a mitigating factor when imposing life without parole on a juvenile offender. The trial court did not have the benefit of the Miller decision when Long was sentenced. Long, the follower in these crimes, was sentenced along with his two adult co-defendants in a pro-forma sentencing hearing filled with generalities, and that hearing showed that the trial court lacked the guidance provided by Miller. The trial court found Long was incorrigible, showed no remorse, and had no respect for human life—all of which require maturity that juveniles lack.  Unlike adults, children can change over time. All of this has been proven by science, and validated by a majority of justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. The trial court did not appropriately consider Long’s youth at the sentencing hearing, and the case needs to be sent back for that purpose.  Defense counsel urged the Court to handle this case as it handled mental retardation cases involving the death penalty in State v. Lott after the U.S. Supreme Court held  in Atkins v. Virginia  that execution of the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment .

State’s Argument

Ohio’s statutory scheme is entirely different from those invalidated in Miller. In Ohio, the imposition of life without parole on a juvenile offender is discretionary, not mandatory.  All the recent cases from the U.S. Supreme Court on juveniles— Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Millerinstruct that before a juvenile can be sentenced to life without parole, states must have an individualized sentencing hearing where there is the chance to raise youth as a mitigating factor. That is exactly what happened in this case. Defense counsel based a sentencing memorandum solely on that issue. But the trial court has the right to consider many other factors as well, and youth can be overridden by these factors.  In this case, Long was not an accomplice, but a principal offender in some very heinous killings.  This was an appropriately individualized sentencing in which youth was appropriately considered, and the imposition of the life-without-parole sentence was not mandatory.

What Was on their Minds

How Different are Juveniles?

Is it impossible for juveniles to understand the magnitude of what they have done and to show remorse, asked the Chief?

Is incorrigibility really inconsistent with being seventeen, asked Justice Pfeifer?

The impact of Miller

Is the defendant entitled to a lesser sentence than his adult co-defendants?  Should the Court now write a rule of law going back to what was required a decade ago, where trial judges had to give explicit reasons for a sentence, asked Justice O’Neill?  When a juvenile is involved, must the trial court say, I looked at youth as a factor, but I’m not buying it?

Ohio doesn’t have a mandatory life without parole provision for juveniles, commented Justice Pfeifer.  Haven’t judges known the difference between adults and juveniles for years? Wasn’t saying juveniles are different just a flourish of the pen, and not a black letter holding? Is the Court to assume judges had no idea about any of the things later articulated in Miller? “You treat this like Moses coming down,” he commented to defense counsel during rebuttal.

In a key question of the day, he later asked, isn’t youth always a mitigating factor, but one which can be overcome by factors like those present in this case?

Where does Miller say that there must be a record of all of the issues about juveniles it discussed, asked Justice Lanzinger?

Didn’t the trial court in this case do exactly as Miller prescribed, asked Justice O’Donnell? It didn’t foreclose life without parole for juveniles, it just required taking into account how juveniles are different from adults, which the trial court seemed to do, he commented.

Can incorrigibility take precedence over youth, asked Chief Justice O’Connor? Is it permissible for a judge to make such a determination for someone under age 18?

This Particular Juvenile Defendant

The court conducted a four week trial with this man, so surely the court was aware of his age, mused Justice O’Donnell. And didn’t the court take that into account at the sentencing hearing? What could the court have done differently?

Chief Justice O’Connor commented that it sounded like the judge put a lot of thought and analysis into the sentence she imposed on this particular defendant.

Did the prosecutor use youth as an aggravating or a mitigating factor in this case asked Justice French? When the prosecutor answered that youth is normally a mitigating factor, but the prosecutor had argued that in this case that shouldn’t carry much weight because of the egregious nature and facts and circumstances of this case, she asked if that was inconsistent with Miller.  No, he replied, not when we are discussing individualized sentencing hearings. Youth is only one characteristic of many in this case. How exactly was this hearing individualized, she asked later?

Does the judge have the ability to listen to defense counsel raise the issue of youth as a mitigating factor, asked Justice Lanzinger? Did she do so in this case?

What Does the Defendant Want?

Should the case be sent back for re-sentencing in light of Miller, asked Justice O’Donnell? Couldn’t the trial court impose exactly the same sentence, but state on the record that she had explicitly considered youth in making the sentence?

What exactly does the defendant say should have happened at the sentencing hearing that didn’t, asked the Chief? (answer- to acknowledge that Long can change, and to treat him somehow differently from his adult co-defendants)

How it Looks from the Bleachers

To Professor Bettman

Like a win for the state.  There is no denying the trend from the U.S. Supreme Court that juveniles are different and must be sentenced in a manner that acknowledges they can still change. But Ohio’s law, unlike the two struck down in Miller and its companion case, is discretionary, not mandatory, and Miller only banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles.  Miller did explicitly state that punishment should be reserved for the worst of the worst, and should be uncommon.  Whether Long falls into that category I do not know.  But it does sound as if the trial court in this case did consider Long’s youth in a proper way.  As Justice Pfeifer said, judges have known and considered the differences between youthful and adult offenders well before Miller was decided.  Justice Pfeifer and Chief Justice O’Connor have been particularly sympathetic to the rights of juvenile offenders, but neither seemed to buy the defense arguments in this case. Still, even in a ruling for the state, the Court is likely to remind trial courts of all that Miller articulates about and requires for juvenile offenders.

To Student Contributor Cameron Downer

Defense counsel had a rough time at oral argument. The justices raised three different issues with Long’s argument. First, Chief Justice O’Connor, Justice Pfeifer, and Justice Lanzinger all raised doubts as to the applicability of Miller to Ohio’s discretionary sentencing scheme. Second, Chief Justice O’Connor, Justice O’Donnell, and Justice Pfeifer understood the trial court’s sentencing as having already considered youth as a factor. Lastly, Chief Justice O’Connor, Justice O’Neill, and Justice Lanzinger appeared not to fully understand Long’s argument and whether Long would require courts to explicitly state that they considered youth in sentencing.

On the other hand, the justices seemed receptive to the prosecutor’s argument. Many of the questions given to the State—particularly from Chief Justice O’Connor—were softball questions that fit into the State’s argument. Justices Pfeifer, French, and O’Neill did raise some concern over the facts in the case—such as whether or not Long was the actual killer, whether Long was grouped with his adult co-defendants, and whether the victims of the car shooting also had guns—but the issues were not further pressed by any of the Justices. Justice O’Neill did not seem receptive to Long’s argument and commented that requiring courts to explicitly state whether they considered youth as a factor in sentencing would bring the Court back ten years.

Overall, I predict that this case will be decided unanimously in favor of the State, with the possibility of a dissent from Justice French.


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