MILLER v. ALABAMA
132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012)
Supreme Court of United States.
Argued March 20, 2012.
While the tally in these early cases may be characterized as evidence of a national consensus, the evidence became weaker and weaker in later cases. In Atkins, which held that low-IQ defendants may not be sentenced to death, the Court found an anti-death-penalty consensus even though more than half of the States that allowed capital punishment permitted the practice. See 536 U.S., at 342, 122 S.Ct. 2242 (SCALIA, J., dissenting) (observing that less than half of the 38 States that permit capital punishment have enacted legislation barring execution of the mentally retarded). The Court attempted to get around this problem by noting that there was a pronounced trend against this punishment. See id., at 313-315, 122 S.Ct. 2242 (listing 18 States that had amended their laws since 1986 to prohibit the execution of mentally retarded persons).
The importance of trend evidence, however, was not long lived. In Roper, which outlawed capital punishment for defendants between the ages of 16 and 18, the lineup of the States was the same as in Atkins, but the trend in favor of abolition — five States during the past 15 years — was less impressive. Roper, 543 U.S., at 564-565, 125 S.Ct. 1183. Nevertheless, the Court held that the absence of a strong trend in support of abolition did not matter. See id., at 566, 125 S.Ct. 1183 ("Any difference between this case and Atkins with respect to the pace of abolition is thus counterbalanced by the consistent direction of the change").
In Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court went further. Holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits capital punishment for the brutal rape of a 12-year-old girl, the Court disregarded a nascent legislative trend in favor of permitting capital punishment for this narrowly defined and heinous crime. See 554 U.S., at 433, 128 S.Ct. 2641 (explaining that, although "the total number of States to have made child rape a capital offense ... is six," "[t]his is not an indication of a trend or change in direction comparable to the one supported by data in Roper"). The Court felt no need to see whether this trend developed further — perhaps because true moral evolution can lead in only one direction. And despite the argument that the rape of a young child may involve greater depravity than some murders, the Court proclaimed that homicide is categorically different from all (or maybe almost all) other offenses. See id., at 438, 128 S.Ct. 2641 (stating that nonhomicide crimes, including child rape, "may be devastating in their harm ... but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public, they cannot be compared to murder in their severity and irrevocability" (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). As the Court had previously put it, "death is different." Ford, supra, at 411, 106 S.Ct. 2595 (plurality opinion). Two years after Kennedy, in Graham v. Florida, any pretense of heeding a legislative consensus was discarded. In Graham, federal law and the law of 37 States and the District of Columbia permitted a minor to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for nonhomicide crimes, but despite this unmistakable evidence of a national consensus, the Court held that the practice violates the Eighth Amendment. See 560 U.S., at ___, 130 S.Ct., at 2043-2044
(THOMAS, J., dissenting). The Court, however, drew a distinction between minors who murder and minors who commit other heinous offenses, so at least in that sense the principle that death is different lived on.
Today, that principle is entirely put to rest, for here we are concerned with the imposition of a term of imprisonment on offenders who kill. The two (carefully selected) cases before us concern very young defendants, and despite the brutality and evident depravity exhibited by at least one of the petitioners, it is hard not to feel sympathy for a 14-year-old sentenced to life without the possibility of release. But no one should be confused by the particulars of the two cases before us. The category of murderers that the Court delicately calls "children" (murderers under the age of 18) consists overwhelmingly of young men who are fast approaching the legal age of adulthood. Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson are anomalies; much more typical are murderers like Donald Roper, who committed a brutal thrill-killing just nine months shy of his 18th birthday. Roper, 543 U.S., at 556, 125 S.Ct. 1183.
Seventeen-year-olds commit a significant number of murders every year,1 and some of these crimes are incredibly brutal. Many of these murderers are at least as mature as the average 18-year-old. See Thompson, 487 U.S., at 854, 108 S.Ct. 2687 (O'Connor, J., concurring in judgment) (noting that maturity may "vary widely among different individuals of the same age"). Congress and the legislatures of 43 States have concluded that at least some of these murderers should be sentenced to prison without parole, and 28 States and the Federal Government have decided that for some of these offenders life without parole should be mandatory. See Ante, at 2471-2472, and nn. 9-10. The majority of this Court now overrules these legislative judgments.2 It is true that, at least for now, the Court apparently permits a trial judge to make an individualized decision that a particular minor convicted of murder should be sentenced to life without parole, but do not expect this possibility to last very long. The majority goes out of its way to express the view that the imposition of a sentence of life without parole on a "child" (i.e., a murderer under the age of 18) should be uncommon. Having held in Graham that a trial judge with discretionary sentencing authority may not impose a sentence of life without parole on a minor
who has committed a nonhomicide offense, the Justices in the majority may soon extend that holding to minors who commit murder. We will see.