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SCOTUS Preview? Ban on Minor Life Sentences not Retroactive

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 09, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders violate the Eight Amendment. The question immediately arose: would juveniles who had received such sentences before the ruling be able to have their sentences revisited?

No, according to the Eighth. Miller does not require courts to revisit sentences given prior to the ruling, the Eighth Circuit held on Monday. Prisoners who were given mandatory sentences of life without parole for crimes they committed as children cannot have those sentences retroactively changed. The case is especially noteworthy, as the Supreme Court granted cert this march on the same issue, in a case arising from Louisiana.

Is the Prohibition Procedural or Substantive?

LaMonte Martin, who was convicted of first-degree murder and given a mandatory life without parole sentence when he was 17-years-old, attempted to have his case revisited. In examining whether Miller applied retroactively, The Eighth Circuit differentiated between novel constitutional procedure and substance in criminal law. New constitutional rules of procedure are inapplicable to previously finalized cases, while substantive rulings may apply retroactively. So which is Miller?

Martin had argued that it was substantive, making "age an element" of sentencing. However, the Court did not forbid life without parole for juvenile offenders; it simply eliminated those mandatory sentences. The Eighth Circuit read that as a procedure requirement, requiring courts to consider age, not a substantive line of new sentencing outcomes.

The court refused to apply Miller retroactively to juvenile offenders who had already been sentenced to life without parole. In doing so, it ruled in line with the Fourth, Fifth and Eleventh Circuits, but counter to the ten state courts that have found Miller to apply retroactively. The Eighth and Ninth have allowed habeas petitions based on Miller, but not ruled directly on whether it applied retroactively.

Concerned about Fairness? Sorry, You're not Juror Material

Martin also raised a Batson challenge, arguing that a prospective juror was eliminated n voir dire because of his race. Under Batson, refusing to allow jurors to service because of their race violates the Equal Protection clause. In Martin's case, the juror, an African American man, had questioned the racial fairness of the justice system, both generally and as applied to his incarcerated cousin. He also worked with Martin's uncle.

The Eighth declined to find a Batson violation. Questions about the fairness of the legal system and a family member's incarceration were race-neutral reasons to strike the juror. White jurors who were empanelled shared the same general concerns, in one case, and worked near the victim's aunt, in another. However, these were insufficiently similar to show that the rejected juror was refused because of his race, the court found.

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