La. Supreme Court considers parole for juvenile lifers

Darryl Tate was 17 years old, three decades ago, when he robbed a man of less than two quarters, then shot him in the chest in Central City.

The teenager pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was automatically sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, without the possibility of parole.

On Wednesday, 31 years later, his case reappeared before the state’s highest court, now tasked with deciding whether a U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning such automatic sentences for juvenile killers should be applied retroactively to Tate, and hundreds of others in Louisiana prisons serving life with no hope of parole for murders they committed as teenagers.

It is a question that courts across the country are now considering, for more than 2,000 childhood killers nationwide.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment bar the government from imposing mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole on those who commit murder before their 18th birthdays.

The ruling, in a case called Miller v. Alabama, did not ban the punishment altogether; the court only outlawed the automatic imposition of the sentence. Each court must now punish young murderers individually, with a hearing called to analyze the child’s home life and experience, their impulsiveness and moral comprehension, their likelihood for rehabilitation.

At issue before the state Supreme Court is whether that ruling applied retroactively in Louisiana, to Tate and more than 200 already sentenced to life without parole before the high court’s decision last year.

Courts across the country have differed in their interpretation, with most concluding that it does apply to prior convictions. The U.S. attorney general and Department of Justice agree. Just a handful of courts have decided that it does not.

The state of Louisiana — represented Wednesday by Assistant Attorney General Colin Clark and Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney Scott Vincent — argued Wednesday that the ruling applies only to those convicted after the high court’s ruling.

Federal law, they argue, has established that retroactivity applies only to cases where a “substantive” issue is at stake, when a crime has been called unconstitutional or an entire type of punishment banned.

At issue now, they argue, is a procedural question. The nation’s high court did not outlaw 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.

But attorneys representing Tate disagree.

“It’s about basic fairness, it’s about treating similarly situated people the same,” said Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative who won the Miller case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Stevenson represented Tate on Wednesday, along with Katherine Mattes, director of the Tulane Criminal Litigation Clinic.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Miller did not expressly address the issue of retroactivity. Neither did a Louisiana statute passed after the ruling that was intended to bring state law in line with the decision.

That law went into effect Aug. 1, and reads, “... any person serving a sentence of life imprisonment for a conviction of first-degree murder or second-degree murder who was under the age of 18 years at the time of the commission of the offense shall be eligible for parole consideration ...”

The state’s lawyers argued that it was written in the future tense; Tate’s attorneys pointed to the language that includes all inmates “serving a life sentence,” which they argued was meant to include those previously convicted and sitting in jail.

Stevenson and Mattes argued that other similar rulings have been roundly interpreted to include prior convictions, including laws forbidding juveniles and the mentally ill from being executed and those barring life sentences without the possibility for parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder.

Though the Supreme Court did not expressly address the issue of retroactivity, it simultaneously extended the ruling to overturn a 2004 life-without-parole sentence for an Arkansas teen convicted of murder. The country’s highest court has already applied its ruling retroactively, thus giving an implied suggestion that it should more broadly be interpreted that way, Tate’s attorneys argued.

The Supreme Court’s ruling touched on the inherent qualities of teenagers — impulsiveness, an ability to change and grow — and found that a blanket mandate of imprisonment until death is cruel and unusual. That doesn’t change depending on the date they were sentenced, Tate’s attorneys argued.

Chief Justice Bernette Johnson quizzed the state’s attorneys repeatedly on whether they believe the Supreme Court’s ruling offers those teenagers sentenced before the ruling any relief at all.

Clark answered that it does not. He said justices need to think about fairness for Tate’s victim, Anthony Jeffrey.

“It’s not fair that he was killed over $0.40 in this case,” he said.