Juvenile offenders.

Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Even Teen Murderers Can Change

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
Read More.
a | A

What good is winning a reprieve from life without parole if the court just turns around and resentences you to 59 years in prison?

For juvenile offenders, that question was partially answered Monday when an appeals court reversed the new sentence given by a lower court to a defendant convicted of committing rape and murder when he was 16. Kids grow up, and the appeals court said the sentencing judge should have considered how much the defendant might have matured in the decade between his crime and resentencing.

The case, out of the U .S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, matters because it sets a benchmark for how courts should reconsider sentences of life without parole for juveniles after the Supreme Court’s landmark 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama. In the Miller case, the court held that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a person to life without parole for crimes committed when the defendant was a juvenile -- no matter how horrific the offense.

At the core of Justice Elena Kagan’s opinion was a recognition that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.” Following a 2005 decision, Roper v. Simmons, in which the court struck down the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles, Kagan had argued that teenagers’ “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences” should be seen to lessen moral culpability while allowing for the possibility that, with more time to mature, those deficiencies could be reformed.

The defendant in yesterday’s case, Branden Pete, was 16 in 2002 when he participated in a horrific rape-murder alongside three much older men. Originally held in juvenile custody on the Navajo reservation where he lived, Pete was then tried as an adult in federal court and sentenced to life without parole in 2005.

After the Supreme Court decided the Miller case, Pete asked the district court to reconsider his sentence and to pay for a neuropsychological examination that might be used to mitigate his sentence. The idea was that the examination might reveal changes in Pete’s intellectual development, any cognitive impairment, and the consequences of years of imprisonment that included segregation or solitary confinement for his own protection.

The district court agreed to review the sentence but refused to order the exam. The judge reasoned that Pete had already had a psychological exam in 2003 when the decision was made to try him as an adult. “It is difficult to conceive” how anything new could be revealed by a new exam, the judge said. He added that Pete’s prison experiences were irrelevant to a new sentencing hearing under the Miller precedent.

At the resentencing, the judge made it clear that he intended to follow only the letter of the Miller decision, not its spirit. He told Pete that he had estimated his probable lifespan as 75 years, subtracted the time Pete had already served, and settled on a sentence of 59 years. He told the defendant: “That means that you have the opportunity to get out of jail, Mr. Pete, when you are 75 years old and live the balance of whatever life you have left back on the reservation.”

In practice, of course, most people don’t live a full lifespan in prison -- especially if they are youthful sex offenders who are frequently abused, attacked and raped themselves. The judge was essentially saying that he hoped Pete would die in prison, but was giving him the slim possibility of release at age 75, to avoid an official sentence of life without parole.

To its credit, the Ninth Circuit panel found the resentencing problematic. First, it said the district court had abused its discretion by denying Pete a neuropsychological exam on the ground that it wouldn’t show that anything changed. The obligation of the sentencing judge is to consider the defendant as he is on the day of sentencing. And Pete, the court pointed out, had aged 10 years, chronologically speaking, since his original sentencing.

The Miller decision’s focus on the cognitive limitations of teenagers and their subsequent development made a new evaluation particularly important, according to the appeals court. It held that “the likelihood of psychological change over time is very much heightened when, as here, the defendant was a juvenile both at the time of the crime and at the earlier psychological evaluation.”

In a strong signal to the lower court, the panel said that reevaluation “could have shown whether the youthful characteristics that contributed to Pete’s crime had dissipated with time, or whether, instead, Pete is the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” The strong implication was that Pete should get a substantially lower sentence.

On remand to the district court, Pete will get a new neuropsychological evaluation, and the judge could potentially reduce his sentence. But it’s altogether uncertain how low the trial judge will go. Pete’s crimes of rape and murder will still be horrific. And federal guidelines, which don’t bind the court but are supposed to influence it, call for a very long sentence.

The value of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is the strong message it sends that juvenile sentences shouldn’t be designed to circumvent the Supreme Court’s opinion. That also applies to resentencing juveniles who were previously given life without parole. The Supreme Court has said that it considers cognitive and emotional development to be highly relevant factors in sentencing juveniles. The lower courts should listen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net