MOULTON, Alabama — More than four years after the Supreme Court ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, an Alabama judge has set a date for resentencing the teen killer whose name is on that landmark case.
Hundreds of other inmates have received new sentences since the justices handed down their ruling in Miller v. Alabama. And on Tuesday, Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig set a March 13 hearing to reconsider the sentence of Evan Miller himself.
Craig told state prosecutors and Miller’s attorneys that they needed a “firm — and I mean firm” date for Miller, who could be given a chance at eventual parole for a crime he committed at age 14.
“This is technically a very old case, and there needs to be resolution of these issues,” he said.
The new proceeding is expected to include testimony from a variety of expert witnesses and could take up to a week. And Craig could send Miller back to prison for life without parole at the end of that proceeding.
But Miller attorney Alicia D’Addario asked Craig to make prosecutors prove beyond a reasonable doubt that her 28-year-old client was “irreparably corrupt” and had no chance of rehabilitation — a bar she said has been set by the Supreme Court under the Miller and Montgomery v. Louisiana cases — in order to hand down the same sentence.
“Without that finding, the penalty can’t be imposed,” said D’Addario, of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, which won the landmark case on Miller’s behalf.
Craig didn’t immediately rule on the motion, but said he wasn’t taking the decision lightly.
“I don’t think any court would sentence anybody to life without the possibility of parole unless it’s clear it’s legally authorized, and it’s clear the evidence compels that conclusion,” he said. “This court, anyway, is not going to trivially send anyone to prison for the remainder of their life.”
Miller was sentenced to life without parole for the July 2003 killing of a neighbor, Cole Cannon. The 52-year-old Cannon was beaten, robbed and left for dead in his mobile home, which Miller and another teen set ablaze to cover up the crime. Most of the account of what happened that night came from a 16-year-old accomplice, Colby Smith, who pleaded guilty to a lesser murder charge in exchange for a life term with a chance of parole.
Cannon’s daughter, Candy Cheatham, said she and her family have seen other sentencing dates put off, but expressed hope that this one will stick.
“I don’t know that it’s ever over or ever completely final,” Cheatham said. “Of course, we’ll be dealing with this for the rest of our lives. But at least we’ll have the resentencing and get that part resolved.”
Miller is being held in a prison outside Birmingham, about 80 miles south of Moulton, his hometown. He wasn’t in court for Tuesday’s hearing.
Miller was convicted of capital murder in 2006. Under Alabama law, a jury in a capital murder case has a choice of one of two penalties: death, or life without parole. But since the Supreme Court had struck down the death penalty for juveniles, they had only one option for Miller.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles and ruled Miller should get a new sentencing hearing. In January, it ruled that juveniles who previously received mandatory life-without-parole terms should get the same opportunity.
The twin decisions don’t completely eliminate life without parole for juvenile offenders: They just bar its automatic application in cases like Miller’s. In his resentencing, Miller and his lawyers will be able to present mitigating factors — his youth and a long history of abuse, mental illness and neglect — in hopes of getting a reduced sentence.
Before the Miller decision, an estimated 2,500 inmates who were under 18 at the time of their crimes were serving life-without-parole terms, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for sentencing reform.
Nine states abolished the penalty for juveniles altogether after Miller, and California and Florida — two of the states where the sentence was most commonly handed down — sharply restricted its imposition, according to a 2015 report by the nonprofit public-interest law firm Phillips Black. But other states challenged whether the ruling applied to offenders who had been sentenced before the Miller decision. That led to January’s follow-up decision, Montgomery v. Louisiana, which clearly stated that it did.
Alabama changed its state law to conform with the Miller and Montgomery decisions in May.