The Missouri Supreme Court could hear an increase of cases seeking appeals for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. A new sentencing law requires Missouri to offer a life without parole or a minimum 25-year sentence for juveniles guilty of murder. University of Missouri social work professor Clark Peters says the law could allow some to continue to argue for further leniency.
“This law was occasioned to align with the U.S. Supreme Court decision. So there wasn’t much flexibility provided. It wasn’t a matter of whether to do this but exactly how,” says Peters. “But it does open a door, I think, down the road to further arguments that the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment with regards to juvenile offenders could expand. It started with the death penalty. Then it went to automatic life without parole was prohibited by the Supreme Court that was held to be retroactive, which is not always the case for the Supreme Court decisions.
The state legislature passed the law this year. The legislation, which was sponsored by Senator Bob Dixon (R-Springfield), puts Missouri in compliance with a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
“I think the justifications for these decisions can be used to expand other appeals and other calls for leniency for young people who commit crimes. By leniency, I don’t mean that we’re going to let them off and reduce the severe penalties at all,” says Peters. “But rather, to develop a criminal justice policy that recognizes that young people who commit a serious mistake when they’re 15 years old, they’re going to be a different person when they are 30 and 40 years old.”
Peters says the law could be an administrative and judicial headache in the short term.
“For those who are old enough now to have served that time, does that mean they get released immediately? I think that’s to be determined. I’m not sure if further legislation will be required. I doubt it,” says Peters. “My guess is there’s some serious meetings going on between the judges, prosecutors and public defenders to understand what the best way is to move forward in a way that makes sense for everybody concerned.”
The Missouri Supreme Court is considering whether two cases should be appealed involving juveniles guilty of first-degree murder – LeDale Nathan and Jason Carr.
Carr was convicted of the 1983 killings of three family members in southern Missouri. Nathan was convicted of the 2009 killing of a St. Louis woman. Both men remain incarcerated in Missouri prisons.