As a trial lawyer and former prosecutor, I always seek justice and fairness during sentencing hearings. When defending an individual, I argue the merits of a sentence based on the specifics that relate to that person. Everyone is unique in what brings them before the criminal justice system and how the court should sentence them. On Tuesday, the U. S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Henry Montgomery, a Louisiana man with a low IQ of 70, who was convicted as a juvenile for killing a police officer and sentenced to the death penalty almost 50 years ago. His death penalty sentence was overturned in 1969. And he was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Montgomery’s case comes before the U.S. Supreme Court following a 2012 Supreme Court case ruling that those who were juveniles at the time of their offense must be given a sentencing hearing to determine if life without parole is appropriate under their specific circumstances. They must be allowed to present mitigating circumstances to rebut a life without parole sentence and not face a mandatory sentence to die in prison.
Mr. Montgomery’s case occurred many years before the new law in 2012 took effect. His lawyers will argue to the court on behalf of Montgomery but possibly affecting perhaps 2,000 other youth lifers that the 2012 law should be applied retroactively. If so, then Montgomery would have the opportunity to present mitigating factors at a new sentencing hearing on why his life without parole sentence should be changed.
It is a legal debate of major proportions on whether the law should be considered retroactively. Most laws do not apply retroactively. It depends on whether the court views the change in law as substantive or procedural. If the Supreme Court rules the 2012 ruling should be considered substantive, then Montgomery will be entitled to his new day in court for another sentencing hearing.
Many states prohibit minors from drinking alcohol until the age of 21. Most states now have restrictive driving licenses until an individual reaches the age of 21. Persons cannot vote until they reach the age of 18. The reasons why state laws limit driving licenses and drinking alcohol is due to a realization that juveniles and teenagers are not often sufficiently able to reach sound decisions that will affect their lives.
The U. S. criminal justice system is one that is presumably based on justice and fairness. Many prosecutors ask for sentences that are just and fair. While many sentences handed out by judges seem neither just or fair when it comes to mandatory sentencing, this is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to do what is just and fair.
If teenagers cannot be relied upon to drink alcohol or drive responsibility until reaching a certain age, it is difficult to see how they can be relied upon to make appropriate judgments when it comes to more gruesome issues like taking someone’s life. That is not to suggest that in either of these situations that no punishment should be given. The punishment for any particular crime should take into account any mitigating circumstances such as age, mental ability, IQ and any other relevant factors.
It is never too late for the criminal justice system to be fair and just. Justice has no time limits. While many victims may object on the grounds of opening old wounds. I beg to disagree as that being a valid reason for the Supreme Court to do what is fair and just.
Those who are exonerated years later are given freedom. There is no statute of limitations on the court reversing any wrongs and doing what justice and fairness demand. It’s never too late for the Supreme Court and our criminal justice system to be just and fair.
Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor. She often appears on air on Al Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS News, C-Span, BET, Fox 5, PBS News Hour and others.