Adequate Review Required for Juvenile Death Sentences Commuted to Life Without the Possibility of Parole
Adams v. Alabama, 136 S. Ct. 1796 (2016), is the most recent in a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions affecting the sentencing of juveniles and adults who offend as juveniles. In the first case of the series, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty for offenders under 18, qualifying it as cruel and unusual punishment. The decision reflected advances in neuroscience about incomplete brain development in juveniles. The Court cited three relevant ways that adolescents differ from adults: lack of maturity, increased impulsivity, and limited judgment; increased vulnerability and susceptibility to external pressure and negative influences; and a personality structure that is less fixed and more open to change. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, cited society's view of children and the developing “national consensus” against execution of juveniles in the decision. The Roper decision resulted in the commuting of death sentences to sentences of life without parole, probation, or release for all who were charged as juveniles.
In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), with reasoning similar to Roper, the Court abolished mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide. Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2445 (2012), the Court addressed mandated life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in murder cases. The Court held that a mandatory life sentence is disproportionate for all but the rarest juvenile offenders and ruled that trial courts must consider the appropriateness of life without parole for individual juveniles before sentencing, thereby abolishing automatic mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted on any charge. Four years later in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), the Court made the juvenile sentencing prohibitions retroactive requiring lower courts to apply individualized sentencing review for adults who were sentenced as juveniles before Graham and Miller.
The question before the Court in Adams was what constituted adequate review in cases where the death penalty had been commuted to life without parole under Roper. Mr. Adams had been convicted as a juvenile of capital murder and sentenced to death; his death sentence was commuted to life without parole under Roper. He appealed his automatic life sentence, arguing that, under Montgomery, he was entitled to an individualized consideration of his sentence.
Facts of the Case
In 1997, Renaldo Chante Adams was 17 years old. Wearing a stocking mask, he climbed through a window into the home of Melissa and Andrew Mills, awakening the couple. He demanded money and remained in the Mills' home with Mrs. Mills, who was pregnant, and the couple's three young children while Mr. Mills withdrew money from a nearby ATM. When Mr. Mills returned with the maximum daily limit of $375, Mr. Adams demanded more money. While Mr. Mills went to cash a check and call police, Mr. Adams raped Mrs. Mills at knife point and stabbed her repeatedly in the neck, back, and upper and lower chest, piercing her liver and lungs. The wounds were fatal to her and the unborn baby. Mr. Adams fled but was captured shortly thereafter. The evidence against him was incontrovertible: Mrs. Mills' blood was on his clothes, the knife and bloody money were found nearby, one of his sandals was found on the Mills' property, and his DNA matched the semen recovered from the rape kit. At trial, Mr. Adams was convicted of four counts of capital murder for killing Mrs. Mills during the course of a rape, robbery, and burglary and for killing her while robbing her husband. After the Roper decision, Mr. Adams' death penalty was commuted and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the sentence when Mr. Adams appealed based on the Miller prohibition of mandated life-without-parole sentences for homicides without individual consideration of the sentence. Mr. Adams then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
Ruling and Reasoning
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously vacated the judgment of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and remanded for further consideration of Mr. Adams' sentence in light of Montgomery. Four justices wrote two concurring opinions, each taking a different stance on how the lower court might reconsider the matter of whether Mr. Adams had already received an individualized sentence. Justices Thomas and Alito wrote that Mr. Adams' original sentencing procedures fulfilled the individualized sentencing requirements imposed by Miller because juries in capital cases consider “all relevant mitigating evidence” including age and “mental and emotional development.” Therefore, Mr. Adams had an individualized review when he was sentenced to death. In the separate opinion, Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg expressed the view that there was no indication that the fact-finders considered mitigating evidence beyond Mr. Adams' age when they found in favor of the death penalty. The justices further held that the court must “correctly” determine whether Mr. Adams' crimes reflected “transient immaturity” or “irreparable corruption” to fulfill the Miller requirement. The justices emphasized the need for individualized reconsideration of the commuted sentences and that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole should be reserved solely for the rarest of juvenile offenders, those who are permanently corrupt and incapable of rehabilitation.
This series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions has implications for forensic psychiatrists and psychologists. Forensic experts are being asked to assist in the review of cases involving juvenile offenders who were sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. The cases are challenging. How does an expert assess maturity, rehabilitation, and the presence or absence of “irreparable corruption” in adults who as juveniles committed heinous crimes and grew into adulthood as inmates? Incarceration interrupts development, thwarts independence, and inhibits the usual social and occupational opportunities. The capacity to demonstrate remorse, make restitution, or contribute to society is hard to demonstrate in correctional environments that may reward strength and intimidation. In addition, resources and conditions of confinement vary across prisons. Indeed, the same hardships and social barriers that the offending juvenile experienced may be replicated during incarceration. Forensic evaluations, therefore, should assess not only how inmates have matured and developed, but also what opportunities exist to promote that growth and opine about the differences between characterological and environmental flaws.
In a prison that supports rehabilitation, maturation might be indicated by completed General Education Diploma courses, additional coursework, vocational training, and participation in victim awareness and spiritual programs. Behavioral records throughout incarceration also provide valuable data in making new sentencing recommendations for offenders. However, in settings where resources are scarce, the indication of change will be harder to ascertain.
Certainly, one aspect of a forensic resentencing evaluation is assessment of risk and the plan for risk management. Risk assessment of someone confined in a punitive environment since adolescence presents further challenges. Usual risk assessment measures may not apply. Consider, for example, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). Incarcerated as juveniles, adults may not have the opportunity to incur many arrests or demonstrate dysfunctional relationships. On the other hand, coming of age in a prison environment may alter the determination of callousness, glibness, and other antisocial personality features. The forensic expert's role in these cases presents opportunities to develop interdisciplinary strategies for assessment. Further, these Supreme Court decisions have created a need for correctional psychology and psychiatry to develop programming to promote maturation and rehabilitation for those who might have a new opportunity for return to society.
Another critical concern arises from the implicit assumptions in the Court's reasoning in these decisions: the criminal behavior is viewed as the result of an underdeveloped person who has the potential to develop and progress toward productive adulthood. What is not addressed by these decisions is the impact of mental illness and cognitive deficits on development, especially development in prison.
In general, individuals with mental illness have a harder time in prison. They often incur disciplinary tickets, even new charges, and are familiar to correctional disciplinary boards. Persons with mental illness may not show a trajectory of maturation and rehabilitation, not because they are irreparably corrupt, but because of untreated psychiatric disorders. In resentencing considerations, might mental illness be considered a mitigating circumstance, or would poor adjustment in the correctional environment, as the result of mental illness, ultimately be damning? If the latter prevails, a future Supreme Court case considering whether lengthy incarcerations for juveniles with mental illness violates the Eighth Amendment might be expected.
Disclosures of financial or other potential conflicts of interest: None.
- © 2017 American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law