La. Supreme Court: Juvenile killers not eligible for new sentences

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a nationwide ban on automatically sentencing juvenile killers to spend the rest of their lives in prison without hope for parole does not apply to hundreds of childhood murderers already locked up in Louisiana.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling last year, finding mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole to be cruel and unusual for those who committed their crimes before their 18th birthday.

Louisiana’s highest court decided 5-2 that the provision does not apply retroactively to more than 200 children sentenced to die in Louisiana prisons before the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its opinion.

That ruling, in a case called Miller v. Alabama, did not ban the punishment altogether; the high court only outlawed the automatic imposition of the sentence.

Each court must punish young murderers individually, after a hearing to analyze the child’s home life, moral comprehension and likelihood for rehabilitation.

A judge then is entitled to sentence the child to life without the possibility of parole.

The nation’s highest court did not expressly address whether its ruling should carry over to the 2,000 childhood killers already sitting in prisons across the country.

In the wake of the decision, hundreds of teenage killers, some of whom have already served decades in prison, asked the courts to reconsider their mandatory life sentences.

Courts in various states have split on the issue.

The highest courts in Iowa and Mississippi and mid-level courts in Illinois and New Hampshire have decided that the ban should apply retroactively. The U.S. Department of Justice agreed.

Supreme courts in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and, now, Louisiana, have ruled the opposite. So have intermediate appeals courts in Florida and Michigan.

Federal circuit courts have also divided on the issue, with some tossing out previously imposed life sentences and others upholding them.

The U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately have to settle the confusion.

In the meantime, many Louisiana district judges have postponed rendering verdicts on individual cases, awaiting word from the higher courts.

The state Supreme Court based its decision this week on a federal law that says retroactivity applies only in cases where a “substantive” issue is at stake, as when an entire crime has been deemed unconstitutional or a type of punishment banned entirely.

Such was the case when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles.

The state Supreme Court found instead that the issue before it was a procedural one.

It said the U.S. Supreme Court did not bar sentences of life without the possibility of parole, it merely altered the means of getting there — replacing an automatic mandate with a requirement to hold a hearing. Changes in procedures do not apply retroactively.

The Louisiana case centered around Darryl Tate, who was 17 when he robbed a man of 40 cents and shot him in the chest.

Tate pleaded guilty in Orleans Parish in 1981 to second-degree murder and was sentenced, automatically under state law, to spend the rest of his life in prison without hope for parole.

After the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year, Tate asked an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge to throw out his automatic life sentence.

The judge refused, and Tate appealed to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.

That court ruled the Miller decision should be applied retroactively, so it ordered the trial court to hold a hearing and sentence Tate anew.

The state appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in September.

On Tuesday, the court scrapped the appeals court’s ruling and reinstated the District Court’s decision to uphold Tate’s original sentence.

At September’s hearing, the state’s case — fundamentally that the implications of the Miller decision are procedural and thus do not apply retroactively — was argued by Assistant Attorney General Colin Clark and Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney Scott Vincent.

Tate was represented by Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who won the Miller case before the U.S. Supreme Court, along with Katherine Mattes, director of the Tulane Criminal Litigation Clinic.

They argued Tate, and others like him, should be treated the same as a juvenile who commits the same crime today.

Both described it as an issue of “basic fairness,” saying if a punishment is cruel and unusual today, it was just as cruel and unusual a decade ago.

Mattes declined to comment on the decision Tuesday.

Stevenson did not return a message.

The next step for Tate is to appeal to the federal court system.

“We’re disappointed by the decision,” said Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. “The United States Supreme Court clearly ruled that mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole are cruel and unusual. We believe that states should not be setting a time distinction.”

In its 21-page ruling Tuesday, the Supreme Court also analyzed the state Legislature’s intent when it passed a bill this year intended to bring state law in line with the decision.

The new state law requires district judges to hold a hearing after a murder conviction and to decide whether the mandatory life sentence will be imposed with or without the possibility of parole.

The law states that a person convicted as a juvenile becomes eligible for parole after serving 35 years, so long as he behaves himself in prison and receives a GED or job training.

The state Supreme Court noted that lawmakers used the present tense, not past tense, in the new law and concluded that the Legislature never intended the law to be read to apply to those already sentenced.

The state’s highest court split 5-2 on the issue. Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Jefferson Hughes.

“Fundamental fairness in the administration of justice requires that these new laws apply to Darryl Tate, and all defendants who are similarly situated in Louisiana,” Johnson wrote.