Back Home in South Carolina, Cornell Law Professors Fight Legal Battle for Juvenile Lifers

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From l. to r: Ian Brekke,Lisa Schmidt, Katherine Ensler, Aleesha Fowler, Suzy Marinkovich, Anthony Collins, Lucas McNamara and Professor John Blume. Not pictured: Jessica Hittelman

NEW YORK -- Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June in the Miller v. Alabama case, John Blume, a professor at Cornell Law School, started worrying about his home state of South Carolina.

Blume knew the Miller decision -- which ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment -- would create a great need for legal work in South Carolina.

new york logo 01The legal limbo created by the Miller decision is not unique to South Carolina, however. Advocates for juvenile sentencing reform estimate there are 2,500 prisoners in nearly 30 states across the country who are serving life sentences without parole, including some 2,100 who were given mandatory sentences. In fact, other states across the country contending with the same confusion have more inmates than the 36 Blume and his team found in need of new remedies to meet the standards of the Miller decision. Pennsylvania, for instance, has around 500 prisoners who could be eligible for new sentences under Miller.

In the days after the 5-4 decision came down, he and fellow Cornell Law professor Keir Weyble, a former criminal defense colleague from the Palmetto State, decided to launch the Cornell Juvenile Justice Clinic. The goal of the clinic is to make sure South Carolina inmates sentenced to life without parole as juveniles are resentenced in accordance with the Miller decision.

Blume and Weyble both have experience working on death penalty cases and they see a parallel between sentencing an adult to die and giving a juvenile a life sentence without parole.

They said Miller was another step in the Supreme Court’s acknowledgement that juveniles are fundamentally different than adults and that punishments meant for those convicted of the most serious criminal offenses are not appropriate for teenagers.

“They’re judging them as though they were equipped to make a truly mature, well-reasoned decision,” Weyble said. “As a scientific matter, as a neurological matter, they don’t have that equipment. They can’t drive cars, they can’t vote, they can’t go to war – the same rationale informs all those policies.”

Blume grew up in Myrtle Beach and practiced law in Columbia for 13 years before joining the faculty at Cornell in 1993. He anticipated that South Carolina inmates impacted by the Miller case, some of whom have been in jail for more than a decade, would need competent representation to fight for new sentencing hearings. And he knew the Miller decision had the potential to create chaos in South Carolina’s courts.

Blume decided to step in to fill the void with the Cornell Juvenile Justice Clinic.

“There was no obvious set of lawyers who would step up and say ‘these kids are our responsibility,’” Blume said. “Without somebody taking an active role, some of them might miss deadlines or not know to file. It also seemed to us it was beneficial to have somebody thinking about this group as a whole.”

Blume’s students have visited South Carolina a handful of times to research cases and interview inmates. In October 2012, the law clinic filed a class action suit on behalf of 36 South Carolina prisoners, almost of all of them minorities, asking the state’s Supreme Court to order new sentencing hearings.

Marsha Levick, a lawyer with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center who worked on the Miller case, said there are organized efforts to help the prisoners effected by Miller in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida and Louisiana, the states with the highest number of juveniles serving life without parole.

The response elsewhere has been scattershot. Pennsylvania and North Carolina have passed laws in an attempt to comply with Miller, and Levick expects more legislative action in 2013.

But James Ross, communications director with The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth in Washington, D.C., said the proposed laws won’t go far enough.

“State policy-makers are responding to the landmark opinion by introducing a range of legislation, some of which ignores both the letter and spirit of Miller,” Ross said in an email.

The South Carolina attorney general is fighting the Cornell law clinic’s suit, which has been argued in competing motions and is now in the state Supreme Court’s hands. There is no timetable for a decision.

According to Blume, the state argues Miller does not apply retroactively to inmates who have already been sentenced, and points out that some of the convicts involved in Blume and Weyble suit were not given mandatory sentences, the type of punishment specifically covered by the Miller decision. A spokesman for S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson declined to comment.

“It would be inappropriate to comment on matters that are pending before the court,” Wilson’s communications director, J. Mark Powell, said. “We would be happy to comment after there is resolution.”

Blume and Weyble say it’s only a matter of time before the U.S. Supreme Court rules against life sentences for juveniles, whether the punishment was mandatory or issued under a judge’s discretion. Even if the South Carolina Supreme Court rejects this notion, Blume and Weyble say the Miller decision clearly calls for “individualized sentencing hearings” when a life sentence without parole is being considered for a juvenile offender.

In the cases they’ve reviewed, the sentencing hearings were cursory at best. Typically, no witnesses were called, the defendants’ ages were not mentioned and lawyers spoke for a few minutes, at most. The longest sentencing hearing Blume and Weyble found lasted 10 minutes.

“Even if you can have life without parole, the procedures that produced these sentences don’t satisfy Miller,” Blume said. “They clearly envision a more nuanced and detailed sentencing presentation before a judge before you send a child to prison for the rest of his natural life.”

In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the death penalty for juveniles. In 2010, the court’s ruling in Graham vs. Florida eliminated life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder. Miller took another step, and the Cornell law clinic was created to bring some order to the aftermath in South Carolina.

“The last chapter of this hasn’t been written,” Blume said. “Hopefully it helps to have somebody with the experience and time and expertise to think about this systemically. ”

This story produced by JJIE's New York Metro Bureau.

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