Friday, June 19, 2015

State Supreme Court finds mandatory sentences of life without parole retroactively unconstitutional

Posted By on Fri, Jun 19, 2015 at 2:21 PM

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which found mandatory sentences of life without parole of offenders who commit crimes as juveniles unconstitutional, applies retroactively. In a unanimous decision, the Arkansas Court upheld a Lee County circuit judge's ruling that overturned the life sentence of Ulonzo Gordon, who was convicted of a 1995 murder in Crittenden County.   

The 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case involved Kuntrell Jackson, who at 14 was involved in a video store robbery in Mississippi County where a clerk was murdered. He was sentenced to life without parole. The U.S. Court found that sentence violated the 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment and the Arkansas Supreme Court subsequently required Jackson to be resentenced

A life sentence remains an option at sentencing, but only after jurors hear mitigating circumstances related to age. 

Jackson was later sentenced to 20 years. Because of time-served, he became eligible for parole earlier this year. 

"As it now stands, a juvenile offender sentenced to an unconstitutional mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole by the State of Arkansas has obtained a new sentencing hearing," Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robin Wynne wrote in the Gordon decision, referring to the Jackson case. "It would be patently unfair to decline to do so for other prisoners who are similarly situated."

Gordon's attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette there are around 56 prisoners who were sentenced in similar circumstances who've appealed based on the Jackson ruling. 

Of course the next logical conclusion would be to find that all life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) unsuccessfully pushed a bill that would have eliminated all life sentences for juveniles during the last legislative session. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to go that far in the Jackson case, too. 

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