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Do 14-year-old killers deserve life without parole? Supreme Court hears cases.

Supreme Court Justice Kennedy is seen as the potential swing vote in two cases questioning whether life without parole for 14-year-old killers is cruel and unusual punishment.

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“You say the sanctity of human life, but you are dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg replied. “I mean, essentially, you’re making a 14-year-old a throwaway person.”

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Solicitor General Neiman told the justices that there would be a significant cost to forcing states to revive their parole systems for certain offenses.

 “Why not just let these guys get their parole hearings, give them hope, and likely they won’t get parole anyway,” Mr. Neiman said, highlighting the counter-argument that granting parole hearings is relatively cost-free.

“The cost is to the victims and their families who have to endure what are often very painful parole hearings,” he said. 

“When those come up on a frequent basis, that sort of retraumatization process is something that governments can legitimately take into account when they decide – for aggravated murder – that a life-without-parole sentence is an appropriate sentence,” Neiman said.

Currently there are an estimated 79 individuals in American prisons serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were 14 years old.

Roughly 2,300 individuals are serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were younger than 18 years old. 

Thirty-eight states and the federal government allow life without parole sentences for those 14 and older. Twenty-six states have made the sentence mandatory.

The cases at the high court involve two young offenders convicted of murder.

Kuntrell Jackson was 14 when he and two friends tried to rob a video shop in Blytheville, Ark., in 1999. Two of the boys confronted the shopkeeper with a shotgun and demanded money while Mr. Jackson stood at the shop doorway. When the shopkeeper denied having any money, Jackson allegedly walked into the shop to the counter and told the shopkeeper: “We ain’t playin.’ ”

The teen with the gun again demanded money. When the shopkeeper threatened to call police, she was shot in the head and killed. The boys ran from the store without any money. Although he was not the triggerman, Jackson was deemed to have played a significant enough role in the killing to warrant a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

The second case involves Evan Miller, who was 14 at the time he and a 16-year-old friend decided to rob Mr. Miller’s neighbor. The plan was to get the neighbor drunk and steal money from his wallet.

The neighbor awoke as Miller attempted to slip the now-empty wallet back into his pocket. The neighbor grabbed Miller by the throat and a fight broke out. Miller and his friend beat the neighbor with a baseball bat and then set his trailer on fire.

As the smoke and flames grew more intense, the boys heard the neighbor coughing. The friend started back to pull the man from the flames, but Miller allegedly stopped him.

The neighbor died of smoke inhalation. The friend later testified against Miller, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The cases are Evan Miller v. Alabama (10-9646), and Kuntrell Jackson v. Hobbs (10-9647).

A decision is expected by late June.

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