In December of 1994, Michael Kleban, the owner of a comic-book store, was shot in the back of the head while he was listening to the radio behind the counter. Damien Riley, the shooter, was 15 years old. He took $500 from the cash register and fled. Riley could never explain why he did it, saying, “The thought just popped on my mind.” A police officer caught him just a few blocks away, following a trail of money that Riley had dropped as he fled. After his arrest, Riley told law enforcement where he had tossed the gun and made a full confession. Riley explained that he paid $20 for the handgun as a way to protect himself.
He was tried and convicted of second-degree murder. While Riley was found guilty by an 11-1 verdict, the jurors in his case were so concerned about the result that they sent a note to the judge: “We, the jury, would like to ask that if it is in the judge’s power, this young man be given any consideration allowed by the law during sentencing and offered any and all rehabilitation opportunities.”
Life without parole was the mandatory sentence for second-degree murder at the time, so Riley went to prison without any expectation that he would be released before he died. The prosecutor asserted that the mandatory sentence was fair, and during sentencing she reminded the judge that Riley was close to 16 at the time of the shooting—had he been only a few weeks older, he would have been eligible for the death penalty. According to the prosecutors, Riley had gotten lucky.
Right now, there are about 300 Louisiana inmates who are serving the penultimate sentence of life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles—but that could change. In 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that automatic life-without-parole sentences were unconstitutional for people under 18. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Kagan said that condemning juveniles to prison “precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” Relying on advances in brain science, the Court clearly delineated youth as a category of people who could be nourished and redeemed.
Even after the Miller holding in 2012, prosecutors across the country continued to sentence children to prison for life, which remained legal as long as it was not an automatic sentence. Louisiana was especially bad: Since 2012, 62 percent of youth convicted of murder have received a life without parole sentence. One of those cases included a 15-year-old who was sentenced to life without parole in the accidental shooting death of his accomplice during a robbery gone wrong. Prosecutors appeared to be ignoring an important implication of the SCOTUS opinion: Life without parole for juveniles should be rare and reserved for the worst of the worst.
Then, in 2016, SCOTUS held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller applied retroactively. In other words, every recipient of mandatory life without parole would have to be resentenced or offered an opportunity for parole. Further, the holding clarified that life without parole should be reserved for the rare offender who was permanently incorrigible, a high bar that established children as a particular class of people who had certain constitutional protections when it came to criminal sentencing. SCOTUS rulings in the past have made it clear that when dealing with protected classes (like children) the “gruesomeness of a crime” could not be a decisive factor. Most lawyers have come to the conclusion that the draconian sentence should be very rare under the new doctrine.