A 130-year prison sentence handed down in the 1990s to a teenager convicted of two sexual assaults is outside the scope of a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that preclude life sentences for juveniles, a narrowly divided South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled.

In 1993, 13-year-old Conrad Slocumb kidnapped and sexually assaulted a teacher in Orangeburg before shooting her in the head five times. The woman survived, and Slocumb was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Three years later he briefly escaped from custody, broke into a woman’s apartment, and robbed and raped her before he was caught 45 minutes later. He was sentenced to life without parole for burglary, plus another 80 years’ worth of consecutive prison terms for his other crimes.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that the Eight Amendment prohibits sentencing defendants under the age of 18 to life in prison for a crime other than homicide. In Marshall v. Alabama in 2012, it went further and ruled that life without parole for juveniles was cruel and unusual punishment even in cases of homicide.

A federal court remanded Slocumb’s case to a state circuit court, which resentenced Slocumb to 50 years on the robbery charge, resulting in a 130-year aggregate sentence for his crimes–what’s known as a de facto life sentence. On appeal to the state’s Supreme Court, Slocumb argued that although neither Graham nor Miller explicitly address de facto life sentences, his sentence ran contrary to the decisions’ spirit and intent.

Justice John Kittredge, writing for the court’s majority, acknowledged the ostensible merit in Slocumb’s argument, calling it “arguably a reasonable extension of Graham and Miller.” But Kittredge said it would be inappropriate for a state supreme court to extend federal constitutional protections under the Eighth Amendment beyond what the U.S. Supreme Court has laid out.

“Once the Supreme Court has drawn a line in the sand, the authority to redraw that line and broaden federal constitutional protections is limited to our nation’s highest court,” Kittredge wrote. “Because the decision to expand the reach and protections of the Eighth Amendment lies exclusively with the Supreme Court, we are constrained to deny Slocumb relief.”

The court also noted that Slocumb’s case was very different from that of the defendant in Graham, who was convicted of a single crime and sent to a single term of life without parole.

“Slocumb committed multiple crimes at two different points in time—the second set after he had escaped from custody and, in the short time he was free, committed another strikingly similar set of crimes to the first one three years earlier,” Kittredge wrote. “The only reason his aggregate sentence exceeds his life expectancy is because he committed so many crimes, not because a single sentence is disproportionately lengthy.”

Kittredge wrote that the Supreme Court’s rulings have created some confusion across the country regarding the reach of the decisions, but ultimately, it would be up to the state legislature to make any changes regarding the sentencing of juveniles. Lawmakers have, “with commendable foresight,” already taken some initial steps toward reforming juvenile sentencing, he noted.

“Courts have struggled in good faith in trying to determine the manner in which juveniles may be constitutionally sentenced. We are one of those courts,” Kittredge wrote. “Our holding should in no way be read to signal the end of the debate on the underlying issues raised by aggregate term-of-years sentences imposed on juvenile offenders, whether for homicide or nonhomicide offenses.”

Justice Kaye Hearn and Chief Justice Donald Beatty dissented from the court’s ruling, nothing that several state supreme courts and federal appeals courts have found that Graham and Miller apply to de facto life sentences.  

Mark Farthing of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office represented the state.

“Based on the arguments, I thought it could go either way, because it has gone either way across the country,” he said. “I think the split is pretty consistent with how the issue has been addressed all over the country.”

He said that the court seemed “very, very interested” in the fact that Slocumb’s sentence was the result of multiple, violent crimes and outcome could have been different had that not been the case.

Tanya Dawn Shurling of Columbia represented Slocumb. She could not be reached for comment

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw

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