U.S. Appeals Court hears arguments on youth sentence of 51 years before parole

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A federal appeals court heard oral arguments on Thursday over whether a sentence that requires a Tennessee juvenile offender to spend at least 51 years in prison before being eligible for parole violates the U.S. Constitution.

At issue before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, based in Cincinnati, is the case of Cyntoia Brown, who shot and killed a man who solicited her as a prostitute when she was 16. Brown was convicted of murder and aggravated robbery, and received a sentence that would require her to be imprisoned at least until she is 67.

Left: Cyntoia Brown in an undated photo in prison; right: the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati

Tennessee Department of Correction

Left: Cyntoia Brown in an undated photo in prison; right: the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati

Her case, which has attracted national attention, raises anew questions of whether decades-long sentences imposed for crimes committed as juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.

Courts nationwide have grappled with the issue since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing laws that impose mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as juveniles are unconstitutional. The decision was handed down amid growing research that the human brain continues to develop for more than 20 years, making juveniles less likely to appreciate the consequences of their actions and more likely to be rehabilitated.

In Miller, the court ruled that judges sentencing juvenile offenders needed either to impose individual sentencing that considered factors of youth like “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” or the sentences needed to offer juveniles a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate rehabilitation.

At 16, Brown had run away from her adoptive family when Johnny Allen solicited her as a prostitute. Back at Allen’s home, Brown shot the 43-year-old, stealing money and guns before fleeing the scene.

Brown’s attorneys contend that discrepancies in Tennessee state laws and court decisions have made it unclear whether the inmate, now 30, must serve the entirety of her life sentence without the possibility of parole, or whether she will become eligible for parole after serving a minimum of 51 years. Her attorney, C. Mark Pickrell, said during oral arguments that Brown is turning to the federal courts now to avoid serving 51 years, only to find in the future she is not eligible for parole and unable to pursue federal relief.

Pickrell also contended the harsh sentence violates the Constitution even if Brown is eligible for parole in 51 years.

“Ms. Brown is expected to be able to demonstrate the level of her rehabilitation and maturity decades before the State of Tennessee ever gives her that opportunity,” attorneys for Brown wrote in the court briefing.

Tennessee Deputy Attorney General John H. Bledsoe argued that state laws and court rulings are clear, making Brown parole eligible after serving 51 years. Because Brown is parole eligible, Bledsoe said, her sentence is not the mandatory-life sentence that the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional in Miller.

Since the 2012 Supreme Court decision, state and federal judges across the country have considered numerous requests from juvenile offenders arguing their decades-long sentences, which they call the functional equivalent of life terms, should be overturned under the ruling. An Injustice Watch report identified 167 inmates in Illinois prisons serving sentences of more than 50 years for crimes committed as juveniles. The report identified a nationwide patchwork of rulings in determining which sentences amount to life terms for juveniles.

In 2016, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago found that the automatic 100-year sentence for murder given to a 16-year-old offender was unconstitutional under the dictates of the Miller decision.

Meanwhile, the Sixth Circuit in 2013 affirmed a prison sentence for an Ohio teenager whose sentences for robbery, kidnapping, and rape convictions totaled 89 years.

Sixth Circuit Judge Amul R. Thapar, one of the three-judge panel hearing Brown’s case, questioned whether that earlier ruling dictated the outcome for Brown. “Even if you disagree with it, aren’t we stuck with it?” Thapar asked.

Pickrell sought to distinguish the cases. The Ohio state judge imposed the 89-year sentence by ordering consecutive sentences on the series of crimes; while Brown’s life sentence was mandated by law, which prevented the sentencing judge from considering factors of her youth, he said.