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Graham Applies Retroactively; No Life Without Parole for Juvies

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

Roosevelt Moore was convicted of 24 charges related to a string of sexual assaults that he committed in 1991, when he was 16. The full list of crimes is too lengthy, and graphic, to list, but suffice it to say that he deserved a lengthy sentence. In fact, his sentence of 254 years wasn't particularly shocking, other than one minor quibble: There is no realistic possibility of parole, unless, in a Methuselah-esque feat, he lives beyond the age of 144.

That sentence, by the way, was based on the judge's agreement with one psychologist who, contrary to the other experts, concluded that Moore lacked the capacity to change. And if you've been paying attention to either the California or the U.S. Supreme Courts, that presents a pretty big problem.

Graham v. Florida

Teenage brains are not yet developed, especially when it comes to impulse control. The Supreme Court recognized as much in Roper v. Simmons when they barred the death penalty for juveniles, stating, "[I]t is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption."

The Court continued its recognition of the difference between a juvenile's brain (and culpability) and that of an adult, when the Court barred life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles in Graham v. Florida. That ban was limited to nonhomicide crimes, which "cannot be compared to murder in their severity and irrevocability."

Why so merciful? Because for a juvenile, "life" is a long sentence, a sentence devoid of hope and motivation for change or good behavior. The "penological goals" of retribution, rehabilitation, and deterrance are not met by depriving them of "a chance to demonstrate grown and maturity" and "the right to re-enter the community."


But does Graham apply retroactively? Per the standard set forth in Teague ("a new rule applies retroactively where it places 'certain kinds of primary, private individual conduct beyond the power of the criminal law-making authority to proscribe'"), it does. Teague covers "rules prohibiting a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense."

Graham applies to a class of defendants, juvenile nonhomicide offenders, defined by the status of the defendants (juveniles) and the type of offense (nonhomicide crimes). Graham prohibits life-without-parole for this class of defendants.

Per the Ninth Circuit, that's exactly what Teague requires. The Fifth Circuit came to the same conclusion, while the Eleventh Circuit has suggested a similar viewpoint, twice before.

And though Moore's conviction became final in 1993, he has not exhausted his collateral (habeas) review.

AEDPA Deference

We can make quick work of this factor. The Supreme Court was clear when it established a "flat ban on life without parole."

The California Court of Appeal incorrectly held that Graham did not apply either to a "term-of-years sentence" for multiple crimes or because of the heinous nature of his acts. However, Graham differentiated between life in prison with, or without, possibility of parole -- not the "label" of a life sentence versus "term-of-years."

Furthermore, even in Graham, the court clearly mentioned rape, stating, "Although an offense like robbery or rape is a serious crime deserving serious punishment, those crimes differ from homicide crimes in a moral sense." The Court also expressly rejected a case-by-case approach that "would allow courts to account for factual differences between cases and to impose life without parole sentences for particularly heinous crimes."

The line was clear: all juvenile nonhomicide offenders should be given a shot at redemption.

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