Despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that life without parole should be “rare” for juveniles, Mississippi continues to sentence two-thirds of these teens to die in prison.
Since that 2012 decision, eight of a dozen Mississippi juveniles convicted of capital murder have received life-without-parole sentences. All but one are Black.
“We continue to devalue Black lives,” said Mississippi Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson. “The courts say this sentence should be seldomly used, but we’re dead set on the practice of harsh punishment that began decades ago. Elected judges tend to be hell-bent on ruining people’s lives rather than offering pathways to redemption and rehabilitation.”
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that a life-without-parole sentence should not be mandatory for juveniles. Only “permanently incorrigible” juveniles should face such punishment, justices said. Four years later, the high court made that ruling retroactive.
On Nov. 3, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether Brett Jones, who had just turned 15 when he stabbed his grandfather to death in Mississippi, was wrongly sentenced – then resentenced after the Miller ruling — to life without parole.
Life sentences for juveniles:Mississippi inmate’s case goes before U.S. Supreme Court
Jones’ attorney, David Shapiro, told justices that many states make findings of incorrigibility before delivering such a sentence and that Mississippi should, too.
Justice Samuel Alito asked, “Do you think that there are any human beings who are not capable of redemption?”
Shapiro replied that Jones has shown behind bars that he has changed, earning a high school degree: “I absolutely believe that Brett substantively is not permanently incorrigible.”
Mississippi Deputy Solicitor General Krissy Nobile said the judge examined mitigating circumstances in Jones’ life before imposing the life-without-parole sentence.
Justice Neil Gorsuch asked, “Why shouldn’t we just require a finding of fact that the defendant is permanently incorrigible?”
Nobile replied that such a finding is illusive: “Incorrigibility is not an objective fact.”
J. Cliff Johnson, executive director of the University of Mississippi’s MacArthur Justice Center, told MCIR that a judge deciding if someone is “permanently incorrigible” is about more than just “saying the magic words.”
Predicting the trajectory of someone’s life is difficult when that person is just 17, he said. “A lot of states have abandoned this because it’s impossible to predict incorrigibility. Let’s let the Parole Board determine this 10, 15 or 20 years down the road.”
Ben Creekmore, Mississippi Prosecutors’ Association past president, told MCIR that state law needs to be fixed to comply with the Supreme Court’s decisions on juvenile sentencing. “It’s one of the top five things that prosecutors are hoping to get through Legislature in 2021,” he said.
Two previous bills to make changes to parole and sentencing died in the legislative session earlier this year.
In the meantime, Mississippi Supreme Court has asked judges to hold a sentencing hearing similar to one held after a capital murder conviction, where the defense may present testimony and other mitigating evidence.
‘Sometimes you have to draw a line in the dirt’
Circuit Judge Prentiss Harrell of Hattiesburg didn’t handle the trial for Joshua Miller, a white 14-year-old convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole, but the judge did handle the resentencing.
The 1996 killing “was terribly heinous,” he said. “The boy had the capacity and knew what he was doing.”
The 14-year-old drove to a church and waited until he spotted his 13-year-old former girlfriend, Kristin Aultman. After inviting her outside, she told him she was no longer interested in him.
He shot her in the face with a 12-gauge shotgun and later wrote, “She didn’t love me. She hurt me. I couldn’t take it. If she can’t be mine, she can’t be anybody’s. I love God, but Satan has a hold of me. … What I have done is wrong. Forgive me.”
Miller was just 15 when the state of Mississippi sent him to its worst prison and one of its most infamous areas — Unit 29.
He earned his GED but was unable to train to be an electrician because of limited prison funds.
Two years ago, Miller, now 36, stood in the courtroom before Harrell.
Clinical forensic psychologist Criss Lott testified that he saw no signs that Miller was incorrigible, saying he “does not have that history.”
Abuse at home may have also played a role in Miller’s response to the situation, Lott said. In addition, the doctor had stopped prescribing Ritalin to treat Miller’s attention deficit disorder.
After hearing the testimony, Harrell concluded that Miller showed little remorse. “I gave it a lot of thought and time, but I just couldn’t be convinced,” the judge said. “Sometimes you have to draw a line in the dirt.”
If he had reduced Miller’s sentence, “he would be eligible for parole immediately,” he said. “I just couldn’t see that.”
Super-predators prediction proves wrong
Life-without-parole sentences affect more Black Mississippians. Overall, more than two-thirds of the 87 juveniles sentenced to life without parole before Miller are Black.
In the early 1990s, a wave of teen violence arose, and social scientists talked of an age of “super-predators,” embracing the theory that some juveniles could not be redeemed.
John Dilulio, who founded Princeton University’s first domestic and comparative policy research center, coined the term. He predicted the number of juveniles in custody would increase three-fold, and by 2010, there would be “an estimated 270,000 more young predators on the streets than in 1990.”
State and federal lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, responded by cracking down on juvenile offenders. U.S. News & World Report headlined its story: “Teenage Time Bombs.”
Criminologist James Fox joined in the rhetoric, saying, “Unless we act today, we’re going to have a bloodbath when these kids grow up.”
But the predictions proved wrong, and youth violence plummeted. “That’s about as far off as one could possibly get,” Dilulio told The New York Times. “The super-predator idea was wrong, but once it was out there, it was out there. There was no reeling it in.”
Both Dilulio and Fox signed “friend of the court” statements that would bar life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.
Over the past decade and a half, the Supreme Court has sought to curb the harshest sentences for juveniles, first by barring the death penalty and next by seeking to limit life-without-parole sentences.
Justices concluded that automatic life without parole sentences amount to “cruel and unusual punishment” forbidden by the Constitution.
More diversity, training needed among prosecutors, judges
In 2015, Scott Colom became the first Black district attorney to represent a majority-white district in Mississippi.
Black Mississippians are more likely to be poor and unable to afford a lawyer, and public defenders handling these cases are often overworked, he said.
Mississippi needs more diversity amongst prosecutors and judges, along with training, which can reduce biases and disparities in criminal cases, he said.
For instance, he said, if authorities arrest two juveniles with the same record, one might be called “thug,” while authorities bestow mercy on the other, “Well, he just made a mistake.”
This project was produced in partnership with the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Email him at Jerry.Mitchell@MississippiCIR.org and follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.