Courts Must Expressly Consider Youth as Mitigating Factor Before Imposing Life-Without-Parole Sentence on Juvenile
A trial court must reconsider the life-without-parole sentence of a juvenile convicted of two 2009 murders in Cincinnati, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
In an opinion authored by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, the court held that the record must show that a trial court separately considered the youth of a juvenile offender as a mitigating factor (a circumstance that may lessen the punishment) before it sentences a juvenile to life in prison without parole.
The 5-2 decision reverses the judgment of the First District Court of Appeals.
In a joint jury trial, Eric Long and his two adult codefendants were found guilty of aggravated murder, felonious assault, and multiple firearms charges following separate shootings in a Cincinnati neighborhood and on Interstate 75 north of the city. Long was 17 years old when the alleged offenses were committed.
In a single sentencing hearing, Long and his codefendants were sentenced to consecutive terms of life imprisonment without parole for the two aggravated murders. Long received an additional 19 years for the remaining charges.
Long argued in his appeal to the First District that the trial court did not specifically consider his youth as a mitigating factor and that life without parole for a teenager was cruel and unusual punishment. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision.
Long then filed an appeal in the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
In the majority opinion, Justice Lanzinger noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama recently determined that imposition of a mandatory sentence of life without parole on a juvenile is cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of a juvenile’s constitutional rights. The relevant Ohio sentencing statute in this case, however, is not mandatory, but instead allows a trial court to choose from four possible sentences when imposing a sentence for aggravated murder, she explained.
She wrote that Miller requires a trial court to consider the defendant’s youth and accompanying characteristics when deciding a juvenile’s sentence. She quoted Miller, which stated, “‘Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment [to impose life without parole] in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.’”
Justice Lanzinger wrote: “[The Ohio Supreme Court] expressly hold[s] that youth is a mitigating factor for a court to consider when sentencing a juvenile. But this does not mean that a juvenile may be sentenced only to the minimum term. The offender’s youth at the time of the offense must still be weighed against any statutory consideration that might make an offense more serious or an offender more likely to recidivate. Yet because a life-without-parole sentence implies that rehabilitation is impossible, when the court selects this most serious sanction, its reasoning for the choice ought to be clear on the record.”
While Long’s attorney raised Long’s age as a mitigating factor, the state seemed to suggest that youth was not a mitigating factor in this case, she continued.
“Because the trial court did not separately mention that Long was a juvenile when he committed the offense, we cannot be sure how the trial court applied this factor,” she wrote. “Although Miller does not require that specific findings be made on the record, it does mandate that a trial court consider as mitigating the offender’s youth and attendant characteristics before imposing a sentence of life without parole. For juveniles, like Long, a sentence of life without parole is the equivalent of a death penalty. As such, it is not to be imposed lightly, for as the juvenile matures into adulthood and may become amenable to rehabilitation, the sentence completely forecloses that possibility.”
“The record shows a group sentencing of three that included one defendant who was a juvenile at the time of the crime,” she added. “Eric Long was situated differently but might not have been given the benefit of the consideration of youth as a mitigating factor. Therefore, his sentence did not comport with the newly announced procedural strictures of Miller v. Alabama.”
Justice Lanzinger’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill. Chief Justice O’Connor also wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Terrence O’Donnell dissented in an opinion joined by Sharon L. Kennedy.
In her concurrence, the chief justice noted that all members of the Ohio Supreme Court agree that trial courts must consider the youth of the offender as a mitigating factor when sentencing a juvenile and that courts have broad discretion when deciding how much weight to give that factor.
“Today, we reaffirm that discretion, but we add to the sentencing calculus by holding that an offender’s youth must be an articulated consideration in the sentencing analysis, at least in cases in which life without parole is a potential sanction,” she wrote.
“But in joining [the majority], I caution that our law requires only that youth be considered as a factor,” she continued. “It does not mandate any particular result from that consideration. … In remanding this cause, we do not opine on the merits of Long’s sentence. We simply ensure that whatever sentence the judge imposes, even if the sentence remains the same, is imposed according to all protections the law affords the offender. … Reasonable minds will certainly differ as to which sentence is most fitting for Eric Long. But whether we believe that the juvenile justice system failed Long, or that Long failed the system, the result is the same: dead young men, wounded young men, incarcerated-for-life young men. None of us should take much solace in that.”
In his dissent, Justice O’Donnell wrote that nothing in Miller prescribes how much weight a court must give to youth as a mitigating factor when sentencing a juvenile, nor does the decision require the court to “explicitly state” that it has considered a specific mitigating circumstance.
“Contrary to the majority’s assertion, the trial court’s failure to ‘separately mention that Long was a juvenile when he committed the offense’ does not mean that ‘we cannot be sure how the trial court applied this factor’ or otherwise conduct an effective review of the sentence,” Justice O’Donnell added. “No one disputed that Long was a juvenile, and in any case, the Supreme Court recognized in Clemons v. Mississippi [(1990)] … that the sentencer need not make written findings concerning mitigating circumstances in order for an appellate court to perform an effective review.”
“[H]ere, Long was only three months shy of his 18th birthday, and he presented no concrete information about his personal background or family history that would have allowed the court to evaluate his mental condition and development, maturity, and relative culpability for his crimes,” Justice O’Donnell continued. “Long cannot fail to present specific mitigating evidence and then fault the trial court for not considering it.”
“[I]t is manifest that whatever significance the trial court attributed to Long’s youth, it did not outweigh his ‘violent history and record,’ his lack of remorse and likelihood to ‘kill again,’ and the seriousness of his crimes, which involved firing assault-type weapons into an occupied dwelling and at occupants of a speeding vehicle, killing two persons and seriously injuring two others,” he wrote. “In my view, the trial court carefully followed the law in this area and properly exercised its discretion in concluding that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole was appropriate in this case.”
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