In 1997, a 14-year-old boy named Christopher Middleton pled guilty in a Georgia Superior Court to armed robbery, two counts of aggravated assault and kidnapping arising out of theft of the victim’s vehicle for joyriding by his juvenile friends. (His mother Jajuana Calloway wrote about him in this space last week.)
He was sentenced as an adult without the possibly of parole pursuant to a measure that was enacted by the Georgia Legislature (H.R. 440 and 441) in 1995 to get tough on juvenile crime and often called seven deadly sins legislation. The prosecution had agreed to a recommended 20-year sentence. However, at the sentencing hearing the victim who had not received any physical injuries, said she would not feel safe with the 14-year old being released before he would be 45 years of age. The trial judge then sentenced him to 30 years without the possibility of parole.
I have filed a post-conviction remedy currently pending before the Court of Appeals of Georgia contesting that Christopher’s sentence is void and unconstitutional under the recent United States Supreme Court case of Graham v. Florida. This case, decided earlier this year, prohibited the imposition of a life sentence without parole of a juvenile offender who had been convicted of a non-homicide crime.
The High Court constitutionally mandated that while a juvenile defendant need not be guaranteed eventual release from a life sentence, that the juvenile must have some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of the life term. The 30-year sentence without the possibility of parole to which Christopher Middleton was sentenced is more than double the life sentence for consideration of release on parole in Georgia in effect at the time of his sentencing.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida established the constitutional precedent that it is cruel and unusual punishment under current moral standards to sentence non-homicide juvenile offenders to a life sentence without being eligible for parole during the life term. The Court further instructed that juveniles could not, by legislation, be classified with the adult worst offenders and that judicial exercise of independent judgment is required in sentencing of juveniles.
The Court, in Graham v. Florida, emphasized the reasons that juveniles should be treated differently from adults, stating that because juveniles have lessened culpability they are less deserving of the most severe punishments. As compared to adults, juveniles have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. They are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure and their characters are not as well formed.
These salient characteristics mean it is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.
Accordingly, juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders. While a juvenile is not absolved of responsibility for their actions, but their transgressions are not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.
The courts should reconsider and rectify such sentences that have resulted in manifest injustice to juveniles having to serve sentences without parole that mandate longer incarceration than had they been sentenced to life imprisonment which is now declared to be cruel and unusual punishment by the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida.
McNeill Stokes, is an Atlanta attorney representing Christopher Middleton.