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State loses fight over life sentences for juveniles

By: Phillip Bantz//June 30, 2015

State loses fight over life sentences for juveniles

By: Phillip Bantz//June 30, 2015

The legal fight over juvenile sentencing standards in South Carolina is finished. But its ending segues into a new challenge for some of the state’s trial judges, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys.

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 1 declined to hear arguments in Aiken v. Byars, a landmark decision that divided the state’s highest court and gives more than 30 inmates serving life in prison a second chance at freedom.

In a 3-2 ruling issued in November 2014, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that underage defendants who were sentenced to life could benefit from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision two years earlier in Miller v. Alabama.

The Miller court concluded that it was unconstitutional to impose mandatory life sentences on juveniles. The Aiken decision held that Miller also applied to discretionary life sentences for juveniles.

The exact number of inmates who are entitled to seek new sentencing hearings is spongy. Fifteen were named as plaintiffs in the Aiken litigation. But the Department of Corrections said in court filings that 36 could benefit from the decision. The agency was unable to provide a more current number.

All Aiken-related cases have been on ice since February, when the state petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its challenge to the opinion. Those cases can move forward now that the petition has been denied, which means solicitors across the state can expect to begin receiving petitions from inmates who want to be resentenced under Aiken and Miller.

“I think you’ll start seeing things get cranked up in the next few months,” said Greenwood criminal defense attorney Charles Grose. He represents one of the inmates entitled to seek a new sentencing hearing.

His client, Jennifer McSharry, was 17 when she was sentenced to life without parole for being an accomplice in a fatal robbery. She rejected a plea deal and went to trial, unlike the triggerman. He received 55 years in prison.

McSharry is in her mid-30s now. Many of the other inmates who might benefit from Aiken also have grown older since they were sentenced. That gap will likely present a challenge during the new hearings, one that will require the participants to reach back in time.

John Nichols, a Columbia lawyer who wrote an amicus brief in Aiken for the South Carolina Psychological Association, suggested in an earlier interview that lawyers might collect school and therapy records for the defendants and round up their teachers and counselors to testify about the character and circumstances of the underage version of the defendant.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, could face problems in trying to track down witnesses and in unearthing evidence and other materials covered with several years’ worth of dust.

And the trial judges who preside over these resentencing hearings will be walking a new path without the aid of a detailed map from the state Supreme Court, which declined to establish specific guidelines for the lower courts to follow.

The majority in Aiken had cited Miller in suggesting that judges weigh the severity of a life sentence against a defendant’s maturity level, intellect, family and home environment and the possibility of rehabilitation.

But the court left it to the judges to figure out exactly how they wanted to conduct the new hearings. For instance, they might also want to consider more recent evidence, such as a defendant’s disciplinary record behind bars.

John Blume, a Cornell University Law School professor who practices at Blume Norris & Franklin-Best in Columbia, spearheaded the litigation against the state in Aiken. He wrote in an email that the U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of cert “brings phase one of the litigation to a close.”

Now, he added, the defendants can have “new sentencing hearings where their juvenile status can be given meaningful consideration as well as the resources to fully develop and present evidence and information relevant to their character and background relevant to the calibration of the appropriate sentence.”

The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office has told the state’s solicitors to be on the lookout for resentencing petitions, according to Mark Powell, a spokesman for the AG. He added that the “impact on our office is essentially over at this point” as any petition must be filed in the county where the sentence was handed down.

Attempts to speak with several solicitors and the head of the South Carolina Commission on Prosecution Coordination were unsuccessful.

Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz

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