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Posts Tagged ‘life without parole’

Supreme Court Reconsiders Juveniles with Life Without Parole

Monday, January 25th, 2016

supcourt_buildingOn Monday, while everyone in the DC Metropolitan area was still digging out snow, the Supreme Court released an opinion stating that juveniles under the age of 18 who were sentenced to life without parole before 2012 may apply to courts to reconsider their sentences.  In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be given the death penalty. Again, in 2012, the High Court prohibited sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles. In doing so however, it did not make the ruling retroactive to those who had already been sentenced.


Henry Montgomery, the petitioner, is now 69 years of age and sentenced to life without parole for murder of a law enforcement officer he committed when he was 17.  The Supreme Court ruled with Justice Kennedy writing the opinion stated, “Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity — and who have since matured — will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment”.  Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court’s 6-3 majority.  The usual dissenters were Justices Anthony Scalia, Clarence Thomas joined by Justice Samuel Alito.


Unfortunately, the Supreme Court, when it prohibited life without the possibility of parole for juveniles, did not apply it retroactively. Thus, those who are now serving sentences without parole convicted before 2012, such as approximately 1500 prisoners, must apply to have their sentences reduced and show their entitlement to life with the possibility of parole.  It does not mean, if granted, that they will be paroled—only eligible for parole.


The case of one of the most infamous juveniles serving life without parole is Lee Boyd Malvo. Malvo, one of the DC Sniper killers, is eligible under the Supreme Court’s ruling.  Malvo is now 30 but was 17 when the killing spree with John Allen Muhammad occurred in 2002. Malvo along with Muhammad went on a killing spree for three weeks in 2002 in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, killing 10 people and seriously injuring three survivors.  He went on trial and received multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole in Maryland and Virginia.  While Malvo is one of those eligible under the new ruling, it is highly unlikely that due to the nature of his case, multiple killings and heinous premeditated multiple crimes that either a Maryland or Virginia court would convert his life sentences without parole to eligibility for parole—any time soon.


For many others who committed crimes as juveniles and who have served long sentences without the possibility of parole, the Supreme Court’s decision is a glimmer of hope. And for those like Petitioner, Henry Montgomery, who served substantial periods of time and have matured, it should be a way towards parole.


Of those serving life sentences without parole committed while juveniles, today’s Court ruling is a road towards freedom with no guarantees.  It is not a guarantee that they will be freed.  And even if a court grants them life with the possibility for parole, it does not guarantee  their parole.


Debbie Hines

Debbie Hines

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, member of the Supreme Court and former prosecutor. Her writings appear in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and  Baltimore Sun. She frequently appears on Al Jazeera America, BET, CBS, C-Span, MSNBC and Fox 5 DC as a legal analyst.


Supreme Court Hears Case on Why Juveniles Should Not Die in Jail

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

supcourt_buildingAs a trial lawyer and former prosecutor, I always seek justice and fairness during sentencing hearings.  When defending an individual, I argue the merits of a sentence based on the specifics that relate to that person.  Everyone is unique in what brings them before the criminal justice system and how the court should sentence them.  On Tuesday, the U. S. Supreme Court will hear  oral arguments in the case of Henry Montgomery, a Louisiana man with a low IQ of 70, who was convicted as a juvenile for killing a police officer and sentenced to the death penalty almost 50 years ago.  His death penalty sentence was overturned in 1969. And he was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.


Montgomery’s case comes before the U.S. Supreme Court following a 2012 Supreme Court case ruling that those who were juveniles at the time  of their offense must be given a sentencing hearing to determine if life without parole is appropriate  under their specific circumstances.   They must be allowed to present mitigating circumstances to rebut a life without parole sentence and not face a mandatory sentence to die in prison.


Mr. Montgomery’s case occurred many years before the new law in 2012 took effect. His lawyers will argue to the court on behalf of Montgomery but possibly affecting perhaps 2,000 other youth lifers that the 2012 law should be applied retroactively.  If so, then Montgomery would have the opportunity to present mitigating factors  at a new sentencing hearing on why his life without parole sentence should be changed.



It is a legal debate of major proportions on whether the law should be considered retroactively. Most laws do not apply retroactively.  It depends on whether the court views the change in law as substantive or procedural.  If  the Supreme Court rules the  2012 ruling should be considered substantive, then Montgomery will be entitled to his new day in court for another sentencing hearing.



Many states prohibit minors from drinking alcohol until the age of 21.  Most states now have restrictive driving licenses until an individual reaches the age of 21.  Persons cannot vote until they reach the age of 18.  The reasons why state laws limit driving licenses and drinking alcohol is due to a realization that juveniles and teenagers are not often sufficiently able to reach sound decisions that will affect their lives.


The U. S. criminal justice system is one that is presumably  based on justice and fairness.  Many prosecutors ask for sentences that are just and fair.  While many sentences handed out by judges seem neither just or fair when it comes to mandatory sentencing, this is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to do what is just and fair.


If teenagers cannot be relied upon to drink alcohol or drive responsibility until reaching a certain age, it is difficult to see how they can be relied upon to make appropriate judgments when it comes to more gruesome issues like taking someone’s life.  That is not to suggest that in either of these situations that no punishment should be given.  The punishment for any particular crime should take into account any mitigating circumstances such as age, mental ability, IQ and any other relevant  factors.


It is never too late for the criminal justice system to be fair and just.  Justice has no time limits.  While many victims may object on the grounds of opening old wounds. I beg to disagree as that being a valid  reason for the Supreme Court to  do what is fair and just.


Those who are exonerated years later are given freedom. There is no statute of limitations on the court reversing any wrongs and doing what justice and fairness demand.  It’s never too late  for the  Supreme Court and our criminal justice system to be just and fair.



Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor.  She often appears on air on Al Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS News, C-Span, BET, Fox 5, PBS News Hour and others.



Why the Boston Bomber May Avoid the Death Penalty

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
Tsarnaev- courtesy wiki free photograph

Tsarnaev- courtesy wiki free photograph

The jury started deliberations on the death penalty phase on Wednesday in the case of  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the now infamous Boston Bomber who was convicted of all 30 counts involved in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, including 17 eligible for the death penalty.  His actions took the lives of three persons, including seven year old Martin Richard and severely injured 264 others.  Some victims have undergone at least 60 surgeries due to their injuries. It’s difficult to imagine a more heinous crime deserving of the death penalty, Yet despite the heinous acts, Tsarnaev may receive life in prison without the possibility of parole.


The prosecutor must convince all twelve jurors to  sentence  Dzhokhar Tsarnaevto death on a single count.  If twelve agree to death on a single count, he will receive the death penalty. And that may be more of an uphill climb than most would imagine.   The defense on the other hand has only to convince one person on each of the  eligible counts that he does not deserve to die.  Each side argued in their respective closing arguments and offered evidence throughout the trial of their positions. The prosecution stated the reasons for the death penalty calling Tsarnaev a “terrorist”.  And  Tsarnaev’s lawyer, Judy Clarke asked the jury to choose life –yes, even for the Boston Bomber.   The defense raised Tsarnaev’s childhood where both parents were absent from his life leaving his older brother as the one to raise him.  Stating the dominant factor of his older brother was a mitigating factor to consider in giving him life in prison.


The jury is aware that at least one of the victim’s families supports life in prison and does not want to go through endless appeals and possible retrials, if he is given the death penalty.  The family of  eight year old Martin Richard, killed in the bombing, requests that Tsarnaev be spared the death penalty.  And Judy Clarke has a track record with death penalty cases resulting in life in prison.  Perhaps, the most convincing person to testify on the defense’s behalf was the last defense witness, Sister Helen Prejan, the real life nun portrayed in the movie, Dead Man Walking. Having seen her speak publicly on one occasion, she is an eloquent speaker and strong advocate against the death penalty.  She testified that Tsarnaev is remorseful for his acts.  To say that the death penalty is not popular in Massachusetts would be an understatement.  The case of Tsarnaev is  being tried in federal court where the death penalty is allowed.  Massachusetts state courts abolished the death penalty in 1984. No one has been executed in Massachusetts since 1947.


The prosecutor showed that Tsarnaev had no remorse for his killings as he lay wounded in the boat  before he was captured. There he wrote that innocent Americans had to die to be punished. And the act of violence committed by Tsarnaev and his brother were the worst acts of terrorism in the U. S. since September 11.   While life in prison is hardly a paradise,  one of the prosecution’s points  in arguing for the death penalty is that Tsarnaev would also be able to somewhat enjoy some measure of his life in prison unlike the deceased victims.  Yet, being on lockdown for 23 hours a day in a tiny cell could  hardly be considered enjoyment.


If Tsarnaev is given the death penalty on one single count out of the eligible counts for the death penalty, he will be sentence to death.  And then the countless appeals will start. If given death, we could be discussing his case a decade later due to appellate reviews—as he awaits on death row.  If he is spared the death penalty and given life, he will spend the rest of his life in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day without the possibility of parole.  That’s  a  slower death sentence.


Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor.  She appears on Al Jazeera America, MSNBC,  BET, C-Span, PBS, CCTV- America,  Fox 5 (WTTG) and TV One among others, speaking on legal news and issues.