US Supreme Court declines to hear juvenile life sentence case

The US Supreme Court's refusal to take up the case opens the door for Addolfo Davis, who was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed at the age of 14, to receive a new sentence.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, as seen from the roof of the U.S. Capitol, Nov. 18.

A Chicago man sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed at age 14 has won his bid to receive a new sentence.

The US Supreme Court declined on Monday to take up a case that asked the justices to examine whether a 2012 high court decision must be applied retroactively to strike down mandatory life-without-parole sentences handed down for juvenile offenders.

By declining to take up the case, the action by the high court lets stand an earlier decision by the Illinois Supreme Court ordering a new sentence.

The question arose in the case of Addolfo Davis, who was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in a 1990 gang-related home invasion on the South Side of Chicago in which two men died.

Lawyers for Mr. Davis have been working to overturn his life sentence. They argue that the 2012 Supreme Court precedent – Miller v. Alabama – should apply to their client’s case.

In the Miller decision, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that sentencing a juvenile to a mandatory life sentence was the equivalent of condemning him to a death sentence. The court said it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

When Davis’s case went to the Illinois Supreme Court, that court ruled that he was entitled to a new sentence.

The Illinois attorney general’s office asked the US Supreme Court to take up the Davis case and reverse that Illinois high court decision.

On Monday, the high court declined. The justices did not offer any explanation.

In his brief to the court, Assistant State’s Attorney Alan Spellberg said Supreme Court review was necessary to resolve a deep divide among state high courts and federal appeals courts.

In addition to Illinois, six other state supreme courts have ruled that the US Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama should apply retroactively. Those courts are in Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, Texas, and Wyoming.

Four state supreme courts – in Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania – have ruled that it is not retroactively applicable.

Federal appeals courts in the Philadelphia-based Third Circuit and St. Louis-based Eighth Circuit have ruled in favor of retroactive application, while judges in the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit and New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit have ruled against retroactivity.

Despite the well-defined split in the lower courts, the justices have been reluctant to examine the issue.

The Supreme Court has been presented with similar petitions in four others cases since May. All were rejected.

Davis’s lawyers had urged the high court not to take up his case. They said the Illinois Supreme Court based its decision on its interpretation of Illinois law.

“The Illinois high court’s exercise of its authority to grant Addolfo state post-conviction relief pursuant to [Miller v. Alabama] was well within its purview, and the case therefore presents no federal question for this court’s review,” wrote Patricia Soung of the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School, in a brief on behalf of Davis.

She added that the Davis case was beyond the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.

The case was Illinois v. Davis (14-197). 

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