Last week, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned a life without parole sentence given to Robert Veal, who was only 17 years old at the time at the time of his crime, based on the recent Supreme Court decisions in Montgomery v. Louisiana and Miller v Alabama, sending the issue back to the trial court. In a pivotal moment, the court determined that the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings had transformed its interpretation of Miller.
The Georgia Supreme Court determined that, while under the Miller ruling alone, Veal’s sentencing might have been proper because the judge had utilized permissible discretion. However, Montgomery imposed additional substantive obligations on the sentencing procedure:
[A]lthough Miller did not outlaw LWOP sentences for the category of all juvenile murderers, Montgomery holds that “Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law” that “the sentence of life without parole is disproportionate for the vast majority of juvenile offenders,” with sentencing courts utilizing the process that Miller set forth to determine whether a particular defendant falls into this almost-all juvenile murderer category for which LWOP sentences are banned.
Therefore, because the trial court did not make an explicit finding that the defendant was “irreparably corrupt or permanently incorrigible” as required under Montgomery, Veal had to be resentenced.
By way of background, remember that in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court found that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment prohibited automatic LWOP sentences for juveniles and required states to consider a number of factors, like youth, degree of remorse, and severity of crime. As many have noted, Montgomery extended this ruling to require states to resentence or grant parole hearings to juveniles sentenced to LWOP before Miller.
But, the Montgomery decision also placed additional restriction on the use of JLWOP sentences, reserving them for “exceptional circumstances,” such as “the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible,” the “rarest of juvenile offenders . . . whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,” and “those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.” The Montgomery holding repeats twice that LWOP is not for “the vast majority of juvenile offenders.”
The Georgia Supreme Court’s holding in Veal is, as a result, particularly significant because it attaches a distinctive substantive requirement to Montgomery, limiting the use of JLWOP to only the “worst of the worst.” In other words, JLWOP sentences should be rare and unusual, just as the Supreme Court has said over and over.
This reversal is all the more remarkable given the sentiment expressed by the prosecutor at trial. “These guys should never, ever breathe a breath of fresh air again,” said Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Lance Cross. Veal — the youngest — and five other African-American boys, none older than 22, were charged with multiple counts of carjacking and armed robbery, as well as one rape and one murder. All of them received extraordinarily harsh sentences, including multiple life sentences. Veal’s sentence was life without parole, plus six consecutive life sentences, plus 60 years. Even if the trial court ultimately reduces the LWOP sentence, Veal is not looking at a parole date any time soon (and perhaps not ever). The point of Miller and Montgomery is that juvenile offenders should have the hope of release if they are able to transform their lives after years–or decades–in prison.
The Veal decision, when viewed alongside the Supreme Court’s recent decisions, lends support to the notion that JLWOP sentences are cruel and unusual, a notion that is aligned with modern science and neurology proving that young people are very different from adults.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now prohibit JLWOP sentences entirely, and 10 additional states rarely, if ever, use the sentence. The Veal decision seems to offer some hope that LWOP sentences for kids under 18 will become a relic of the past. Indeed, the Fair Punishment Project recently filed an Amicus brief in Bell v. Arkansas, which urges the U.S. Supreme Court to hold that life without parole for juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment.