Supreme Court: Should ban on juvenile life sentences be retroactive?

The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life sentences for juveniles constituted 'cruel and unusual punishment.' On Friday, it agreed to take up a case that will decide whether that earlier decision should be applied retroactively, thereby giving 'hundreds' of prisoners a shot at parole.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
On Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to take up a case that would test whether its 2012 decision banning mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders should be applied retroactively.

The US Supreme Court on Friday announced that it will take up a case testing whether a 2012 high court decision barring mandatory life prison terms for juvenile offenders should be applied retroactively.

The question arises in the case of George Toca, who is serving a life prison sentence without the possibility of parole in Louisiana.

Mr. Toca was convicted of accidentally shooting his best friend during an attempted armed robbery in 1984. He was 17 years old at the time of the alleged crime.

Toca was identified by the two white victims of the robbery. They said Toca was the black teenager who accidentally shot his partner during the confrontation, according to court documents. 

Toca’s lawyer, Emily Maw of the Innocence Project New Orleans, argues that the witnesses were mistaken and that a different man is responsible for the accidental slaying.

Louisiana has a mandatory minimum sentencing regime. Under that regime, after his conviction, Toca was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The sentencing court did not consider Toca’s young age or other mitigating circumstances of the offense.

Twenty-seven years later, in June 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that an automatic, mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for anyone under 18 amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

Three days after that high court decision in Miller v. Alabama, a judge ruled that the Supreme Court’s holding should be applied retroactively in Toca’s case.

Prosecutors filed an appeal, but lost. They then turned to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which ruled 6 to 1 that the US Supreme Court’s decision did not apply retroactively to Toca’s case.

In urging the Supreme Court to take up the issue, Ms. Maw argued that most state and federal courts have ruled that the prohibition on automatic, mandatory life sentences for juveniles applies retroactively to other young offenders whose cases were completed prior to the high court ruling.

State supreme courts in Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Texas have concluded that the decision should be applied retroactively, according to Maw. 

In addition federal appeals court panels in the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits have permitted retroactive application of the decision, she said. 

In contrast, only the 11th Circuit and the supreme courts of Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania have determined the new rule is not retroactive.

“If this court denies this writ and continues to allow Louisiana to deny [Toca] a sentencing hearing that was mandated by this court in Miller, George Toca will die in prison,” Maw wrote in her petition. 

“He will die in prison even though other life-sentenced prisoners around the country who were convicted as juveniles are given individual sentencing hearings,” she said. “And he will die in prison even though he personifies rehabilitation and the facts of his conviction are a striking example of why mandatory life without parole for some juveniles is cruel and unusual.”

Maw urged the court to take up the case to resolve the conflict for “hundreds” of juvenile offenders entitled to new sentencing hearings.

She said the slain friend’s family believes Toca is innocent.

“Since Mr. Toca was convicted of this shooting 30 years ago, he has grown into a peaceful adult who can make a valuable contribution to society,” Maw wrote. “He entered prison without even a high school diploma and he has since earned a Bachelor’s degree.”

The case is Toca v. Louisiana (14-6381).

It will likely be set for oral argument next spring and decided by June.

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