Professor Julian KillingleyProfessor Julian Killingley Director of the Centre for American Legal Studies – Faculty of Education, Law & Social Sciences

A British law professor is once again taking on the American legal system by challenging the convictions of two juveniles who face a life in prison without ever having a hope of being freed.

Julian Killingly, Professor of American Public Law at Birmingham City University‘s Centre for American Legal Studies, is involved in two cases where the juvenile defendants, both convicted of homicide, were sentenced to terms of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LWOP).  Prof Killingley believes this type of draconian sentencing is in breach of international human rights.

Prof Killingley said: “On November 7th 2011 the US Supreme Court agreed to review the legality of the sentences in two cases involving juvenile defendants. Both cases involved homicide convictions where 14-year-old juvenile defendants were sentenced to terms of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LWOP).

“In 2009 I facilitated the writing of an amicus curiae brief in two cases from Florida which involved the imposition of LWOP sentences on juveniles for non-homicide offences. Graham v Florida involved a 17-year-old convicted of a third armed burglary of a dwelling and Sullivan v Florida involved a 12-year-old convicted of rape.  The brief was written on behalf of the Bar of England and Wales and the Law Society of England and Wales Human Rights Committees and involved close collaboration with Mark George QC and solicitor Hannah Gorman both based in Manchester, the Law Society’s Human Rights adviser Courtenany Barklem, and Professor Connie de la Vega of  the University of San Francisco School of Law.

“In 2010 the US Supreme Court gave its decisions in the Graham and Sullivan cases and decided that attempts to impose LWOP sentences on juveniles for non-homicide offences violated the 8th Amendment and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.  That left open the question whether states could impose LWOP on juveniles for homicides.  Now that the Court has decided to examine this question in the Miller and Jackson cases, Professor Killingley has again reassembled the team that worked on the amicus brief in Graham and Sullivan with a view to making representations to the US Supreme Court urging it to declare the imposition of LWOP on juveniles for homicide to be a prohibited cruel and unusual punishment.

“Their brief will argue that the imposition of such sentences is a violation of international human rights law and is out of step with the practice of all other common law countries. Although a number of countries permit the imposition of life sentences on juvenile defendants, all allow for the possibility of parole at some future date.“

Professor Killingley will call upon students at Birmingham City University School of Law to conduct research for the team, verify authorities and assist with drafting sections of the brief.  The work will be done by students as part of their degree and will be given academic credit.

It is anticipated that the brief will be filed with the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC by mid-December with a decision likely in June or July 2012.

Background

In Miller v Alabama, 14-year-old  Evan Miller beat Cole Cannon repeatedly with his fists, then with a baseball bat before setting his trailer home on fire and leaving him to die. Miller and another juvenile had initially been looking for drugs in Miller’s home but then got him drunk and robbed him of a little over $300. Cannon regained consciousness when Miller attempted to replace his wallet and a fatal fight ensued. Miller was convicted and sentenced to LWOP – the law in Alabama permitted no other sentence for a juvenile convicted of what would be capital homicide for an adult.

In Jackson v Hobbs, 14-year-old Kuntrell Jackson and two other boys discussed the possibility of robbing a video store. It later became clear that one boy was armed with a shotgun. The two older boys entered the store and began robbing it – Jackson initially remained outside the store. When the store clerk argued with the robbers, Jackson entered the store and was present when one of the older boys shot the store clerk dead. Jackson was convicted of felony murder even though he was not armed and had neither planned murder nor fired the fatal shot. Jackson was convicted and sentenced to LWOP – the law in Arkansas permitted no other sentence for a juvenile convicted of felony murder.

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Mark Reed

Mark Reed

Professor in Interdisciplinary Environmental Research at Birmingham City University