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Legally Speaking

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02/01/2011 - American law is, by international standards, a series of innovations and exceptions. This is the first in a series of articles this year that will examine commonplace aspects of the American justice system that are unique in the world.

Adam Liptak originally researched and published these articles in 2007 and 2008. With permission from The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Liptak's articles have been pared down for space, and we will try to update his reports with recent rulings that have changed the law since the articles were published.



By Adam Liptak, The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2007

In December 2006, the United Nations took up a resolution calling for the abolition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children and young teenagers. The vote was 185 to 1, with the United States the lone dissenter.

Indeed, the United States stands alone in the world in convicting young adolescents as adults and sentencing them to live out their lives in prison. In 2007, there were 73 Americans serving such sentences for crimes they committed at age 13 or 14.

Several human rights organizations say states should be required to review sentences of juvenile offenders as the decades go by, looking for cases where parole might be warranted. Corrections professionals and criminologists tend to agree that violent crime is usually a young person's activity, suggesting that eventual parole could be considered in most cases.

But prosecutors and victims' rights groups say there are crimes so terrible and people so dangerous that only life sentences without the possibility of release are a fit moral and practical response.

The differences in the two approaches, legal experts say, are rooted in politics and culture. Other legal systems in the world tend to emphasize rehabilitation, while American law stresses individual responsibility and punishment.

A 2005 Supreme Court decision banned the execution of people who committed crimes when they were younger than 18. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that teenagers were different from older criminals — less mature, more susceptible to peer pressure, and more likely to change for the better.

UPDATE Less than a year ago, on May 17, 2010, the US Supreme Court issued its opinion that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments clause of the Eighth Amendment does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicidecrime.

The push continues against life sentences for juveniles for homicide-relatedcrimes. In January a human rights group asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to reverse a life-without-parole sentence for a 14-year-old who participated in the bullying death of a 13-year-old, along with four other teenagers. If Wisconsin's highest court does not reverse the ruling, an appeal may bring the issue before the US Supreme Court.

The 2005 death penalty ruling applied to 72 death-row inmates, almost precisely the same number as the 73 prisoners (in 2007) serving life without parole for crimes committed at 13 or 14. Lawyers for juvenile lifers said those findings should apply to their clients, too.

In defending American policy in this area in 2006, the State Department told the United Nations that sentencing is usually a matter of state law. "As a general matter," the department added, juvenile offenders serving life-without-parole terms "were hardened criminals who had committed gravely serious crimes."

Human rights groups dispute that reasoning. According to a 2005 joint report, 59 percent of the more than 2,200 prisoners serving life without parole for crimes they committed at age 17 or younger had never been convicted of a previous crime. And 26 percent were in for felony murder, meaning they participated in a crime that led to a murder but did not themselves kill anyone.

In most of the cases, the sentences were mandatory, an automatic consequence of a murder conviction after a juvenile being tried as an adult.


Next month: American Exception Murder Once Removed

An examination of America's unique "felony murder rule" which broadens the definition of murder to unintendedkillings during commission of a felony, and extends murder liability to accomplicesof violent felonies.


Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. You must consult with an attorney for the application of the law to your specific circumstances.

R. Michael Shickich is the founder of the Injury Law Firm located in Casper. The focus of his practice is personal injury and wrongful death cases.

The Wyoming State Bar does not certify any lawyer as a specialist or expert. Anyone considering a lawyer should independently investigate the lawyer's credentials and ability, and not rely upon advertisements or self-proclaimed expertise.

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