There should be no ‘capital life’ sentence for juvenile offenders

Posted Tuesday, Jul. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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sanders The voice on the 911 call last October sounded a bit nervous, but cold at the same time.

It was a teenage boy speaking, and his words were haunting as he told the shocked operator what he had done.

“Uh, I just killed my mom and my sister,” he said.

“I felt like they were just suffocating me, in a way,” he explained to the dispatcher. “Obviously, you know, I’m pretty, I guess, evil.”

When Parker County sheriff’s deputies arrived at the family home they found Jake Ryan Evans, 17, outside holding his hands in the air. Inside they discovered the bodies of his 48-year-old mother, Jami, and 15-year-old sister, Mallory. Both had been shot multiple times.

The teenage suspect has been charged with capital murder, a crime that in Texas carries a penalty of death or life in prison without parole — each of which has been ruled unconstitutional for defendants who were younger than 18 when the crime was committed.

When the court struck down capital punishment for minors in 2005, there were 72 juvenile murderers on Death Rows in the United States; 27 were in Texas. Sadly, by that time Texas had already executed 13 people who were under 18 at the time of their crimes.

In June 2012, less than four months before the slayings in Parker County, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Therein lies the dilemma. If 17-year-olds can’t be sentenced to death or life without parole, can they be charged with a capital offense? And if so, what can the punishment be — constitutionally?

An attorney for Evans argued that because of the Supreme Court ruling, the capital murder charges against his client should be dropped. A judge in Parker County denied the motion.

It is an issue that the Legislature has been trying to resolve this year, first in the regular session, then in a special session and now for the third time in a second session called by the governor and convened on Monday.

Legislation that provides for a life sentence (with the possibility of parole after 40 years) for 17-year-old convicted murderers died in the the regular session and in the first special session. It passed the Senate, but the House added an amendment that would allow life without parole under extenuating circumstances, which many critics said is unconstitutional.

Some defense attorneys think that even if passed, a life sentence that permits consideration of a parole after 40 years will be challenged in the courts. They argue that 40 years in prison is basically a life sentence.

But even if such a prison term were constitutional, can it be applied to people who already have been charged with a crime, such as Evans in Parker County or the 14 young people in Harris County who were 17 at the time of the crimes?

I’m certainly not a legal authority, but I would say no. As Fort Worth attorney Richard Henderson points out, it would violate the Constitution’s prohibition of ex post facto laws. If the law the Legislature passes would be applied retroactively, providing a harsher punishment than existed at the time of the offense, it is unconstitutional.

Proponents of the bill say that life with the possibility of parole after 40 years is the ultimate punishment that 14- to 16-year-old defendants certified as adults can receive, and they would simply would place 17-year-olds in the same category as those teenagers.

But Henderson says the case that struck down life sentences for juveniles, which involved a 14-year-old defendant, would likely prohibit any “automatic life sentence” even with parole.

There’s no reason, except for political grandstanding, that prosecutors can’t let jurors in these cases decide punishment for noncapital murder, which carries a sentence of five to 99 years to life, with the defendant eligible for parole after serving half the time.

But that’s not harsh enough for Texas.

Bob Ray Sanders’ column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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