Two more SCOTUS cases muddy the waters in death penalty and life without parole cases

There were a couple of pieces of criminal sentencing news from the SCOTUS this week which are worth a quick look. The first deals with what may rightly be viewed as a rebuke to Justice Breyer’s recent calls for a complete revisiting of the death penalty question, clearly with an eye toward doing away with it nationally. In Pennsylvania, Shonda Walter had petitioned the court to toss out any possibility of being put do death, but the court refused to even hear the request. (NBC News)

The Supreme Court is rejecting a Pennsylvania inmate’s appeal to consider banning the death penalty across the United States.

The justices did not comment Monday in turning away a challenge from death row inmate Shonda Walter.

Walter’s appeal plays off Justice Stephen Breyer’s call in an impassioned dissent in June to re-evaluate the death penalty in light of problems involving its imposition and use.

Shonda Walter my not be a particularly sympathetic plaintiff to bring such a case since she struck 83-year-old Pearl Harbor veteran James Sementelli 66 times with a hatchet, killing him. Some people simply need to be put down. But just because they refused to hear this case, that doesn’t mean that others aren’t on the way. The attempt by the plaintiff was far too broad here and had virtually nothing to do with her specific case.

The second case – one which the court did hear and rule on – exists a bit more on the margins of the question of crime and punishment. In 2012 the Supreme ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences couldn’t actually be mandatory in the case of juvenile offenders, extending that ruling to all future challenges as well. This week they made it retroactive, applying to those under the age of 18 who had previously been sentenced under these guidelines.

More than a thousand inmates in the nation’s prisons who were sentenced as juveniles to life without the possibility of parole can now challenge those punishments, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The decision extended a 2012 ruling, which invalidated future life-without- parole sentence for juvenile murderers, to all such offenders who were given life sentences in the past.

This case has to do with Henry Montgomery, now in his fifties, who has been in jail since he shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy when he was 17 years old. (SCOTUSblog wrote about the case here last year.) This one wasn’t specifically about the sentence Montgomery received so much as the question as to whether or not the state court had the right to refuse to to amend the sentence after the court’s 2012 ruling I mentioned above. Apparently they decided that it was a federal issue and they overruled Louisiana. This opens the door for more than a thousand other convicts sentenced under similar guidelines.

Not all cases are created equal, but at the age of 17 there shouldn’t be much question about being eligible for life without parole in the murder of a law enforcement officer. After all, we allow 17 year olds to drive, enlist in the military and do all manner of things. But the call has been made, so you can expect to see a flood of challenges coming from all over the country after that one.


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