MOULTON, Alabama — Hundreds of others have received new sentences since the Supreme Court struck down mandatory life-without-parole terms for juveniles.
Now, the man whose name is on that decision gets his chance.
Evan Miller goes back before an Alabama judge for what’s expected to be a multiday resentencing hearing Monday. Miller was 14 when he and a friend killed and robbed neighbor Cole Cannon in a haze of drugs and alcohol in 2003. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down his sentence in a landmark 2012 decision, and his lawyers will argue this week that he should have a chance at parole someday.
In addition to recounting his youth and a long history of abuse, neglect and depression, attorneys from the Equal Justice Initiative — which took Miller’s case to the Supreme Court — are expected to bring evidence about the science of brain development, which underpinned the justices’ ruling. Scientists now believe the parts of the adolescent brain that control emotional, risk-taking behavior aren’t fully developed until after the teenage years.
“The result of this developmental process means that adolescents will not think like or process like adults will until probably their mid-20s,” said Robert Kinscherff, a forensic scientist and attorney at the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience — a joint venture of Harvard Law School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
“In midadolescence, they are wired for maximum stimulation and learning at exactly the same time that their ability to perceive risk and apply it to their own situation is at its least well-developed,” he said.
Scientists had “a pretty good ballpark idea” of that when Miller went to prison. “But the decade since, we’ve become much more precise in describing the process of development and correlating them with specific neural networks that are in the process of developing through adolescence,” Kinscherff said.
The justices cited that evidence in finding that teenagers shouldn’t automatically get locked away for life. But Kinscherff said lower courts have applied those findings unevenly. In some states, judges have struck down tough mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles based on what’s now known about brain development, while others have been slow to resentence teens eligible for reduced terms under the Miller v. Alabama decision and a 2016 follow-up that made it retroactive.
A jury in Moulton convicted Miller of capital murder in 2006. Under Alabama law, the jury has a choice of one of two penalties for that crime: death, or life without parole. But since the Supreme Court had struck down the death penalty for juveniles before his case came to trial, jurors had only one option for Miller.
In striking down Miller’s sentence, the justices didn’t eliminate life without parole for juvenile offenders completely — they just barred its automatic application. So Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig could hand down the same term at the end of this week’s proceeding. But Miller’s lawyers say the state must show their now 28-year-old client is “irreparably corrupt” with no prospect of rehabilitation before he can do so.
In a November hearing, Craig said he “is not going to trivially send anyone to prison for the remainder of their life.”
Prosecutors from the Alabama attorney general’s office, meanwhile, will be arguing that Miller deserved every bit of that original sentence.
A jury in Moulton found Miller guilty of beating, robbing and killing the 52-year-old Cannon in 2006. Cannon was left for dead in his mobile home, which Miller and another teen set ablaze to cover up the crime. An accomplice took a plea deal that got him life with a chance at parole, testifying that he and Miller smoked marijuana and played drinking games with Cannon until the man passed out — then they beat him with a baseball bat, and lifted his wallet and baseball card collection.
By the time he got to Cannon’s trailer, Miller had survived years of physical abuse and four suicide attempts, according to testimony in his trial. He’d been placed in foster care at age 10, only to be returned to the custody of his mother, who was struggling with alcohol and drugs herself.
Much of that painful history is expected to be revisited this week, with family members on both sides of the case once again sitting on the courthouse benches.
“It’s going to be a very prominent hearing even and a very visible decision, no matter what the judge says,” Kinscherff said.
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