Florida Supreme Court Grapples With Life Sentences For Juveniles by LLoyd Dunkelberger

Posted: March 21, 2014 in News and politics

TALLAHASSEE | The question of whether a Panama City woman who was 15 years old when she murdered a cabdriver should remain in prison for the rest of her life was argued before the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday.

Rebecca Lee Falcon, now 32, represents a group of more than 200 Florida prisoners serving life without parole for murders committed while they were under the age of 18. The issue before the state’s highest court is whether a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — that held mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional — should apply since Falcon and the other prisoners’ sentences were final before the nation’s highest court ruled.

The immediate matter is whether the ruling in Miller vs. Alabama is retroactive. But it also represents a broader issue at play in the Florida courts and state Legislature as judges and lawmakers struggle with conforming the state’s laws with a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have determined juveniles need to be treated differently from adults in the justice system.

If the Florida court holds Miller retroactive, it would likely mean re-sentencings for Falcon and other prisoners, with the judges having to weigh individual factors, such as the maturity of defendants at the time of the crime, the nature of the crime and their potential for rehabilitation. If the court finds Miller not to apply to the older cases — as two lower Florida appellate courts have done — the retroactivity issue is likely to be challenged in the federal court system.

Karen Gottlieb, a lawyer representing Falcon, argued that Miller should be retroactive since it represented a change in Florida law of “fundamental significance,” when the federal court held mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual and should be uncommon. “Post-conviction relief must be afforded to avoid obvious injustice,” Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb noted that unlike adult prisoners who face the death penalty and receive extensive sentencing reviews, where many factors are weighed, the 200 juveniles — with mandatory life sentences after 1994 — received no review.

“We have every child sentenced to life without parole in these cases with no review of any factor about their youth and the attendant circumstances, their lack of judgment and impetuousness, their maturity, the prospect for rehabilitation and reform, the outside influences, peer influences,” Gottlieb said. “None of that has been considered.”

Trisha Meggs Pate, an appellate lawyer representing the state, argued against retroactivity, saying the federal ruling did not abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder but only rejected mandatory sentencing.

“It is not a substantive change in law that forbids the state from imposing a new sentence,” Pate said. “It’s not a categorical ban against life without parole sentencing. She may go back to the trial court and face the exact same punishment.”

Pate also raised the issue of the burden on the state courts if the more than 200 prisoners had to return to court for resentencing hearings.

“You’re going to have to witnesses. We’re going to have to have facts about the crime scene, how the crime occurred, what happened, medical examiners,” Pate said. “And some of these cases are 20 years old. They have been final for a long time.”

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