Can a sentence of life in prison be classified as cruel and unusual punishment when the convicted individual is a minor?

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Answered by: Alexander, An Expert in the Young Offender Crime Category
In July 2003, Evan Miller and Colby Smith beat Cole Cannon with a baseball bat and then burned the trailer that Cannon was left in, resulting in his death. At the time of the crime, Evan Miller was fourteen years old. In 2004, Miller was moved from Lawrence County Juvenile Court to Lawrence County Circuit Court where he was tried as an adult on a charge of capital murder during the course of an arson. After being indicted by a grand jury in 2006, Miller was found guilty by a jury on the charge of capital murder during the course of first degree arson. Miller was handed down a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

This case brings to light issues other than those normally raised during the course of a capital murder case. The outcome will force the American public to reevaluate this country's perception of capital murder cases, the accountability of juvenile offenders in these cases, and develop a refined understanding of the term “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The United States is, and always has been, a society based upon the principles of action and reaction. In a rational, logical society, these actions and reactions encompass all aspects of life. Taxes are paid to the government, and as a result roads are built, schools are funded, and mail is delivered. Conversely if taxes are not paid, individuals can face severe financial penalties, and governmental functions would cease. One could argue, and indeed this author will attempt to do so, that this principle of equal and opposing forces is perhaps most applicable to crime and punishment.

After Miller was given a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, he filed a post trial motion for a new trial, arguing that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole violated the eighth amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment considering his young age. The motion was denied by the trial court and its decision upheld by all courts thereafter, and is now pending decision from the United States Supreme Court.

A sentence of life in prison is, barring the death penalty, the most extreme punishment that can be handed down by a legal court in the United States. For a 14 year old boy to be given such a punishment reflects a society that eschews the idea that age is a mitigating factor when violent criminal acts are in question. While many will support the boy's punishment, undoubtedly many will advocate for a reduced sentence based upon his young age and lack of maturity.

By all appearances, the sentence is harsh—however, the nature of the crime was exponentially more so. For a court to have handed down a lesser sentence would have made a mockery of a legal system that is characterized by punishment for wrongdoing. If Miller had been two or three years older, courts would have had ample precedent for trying him as an adult. However, as a fourteen year old, Miller's lawyers argued that he was less culpable than he would have been if he had been two or three years older.

In either case, the loss of not one, but two lives should be the cause of severe sadness. Not only did Miller destroy the life of Cannon, he also destroyed his own life and the lives of all family members involved. However, age cannot be accepted as a factor to excuse one's misdeeds—especially when those misdeeds result in the harm or death of another human being. It is imperative that the legal community punish criminal offenders to the fullest extent of the law—to fail to do so would undermine the American justice system entirely.

Miller's lawyer's contention that their client's punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment is both offensive to the memory of the young man who was killed, and undermining to a system of justice that attempts to rectify criminal wrongdoing.

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