A South Carolina law that imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years’ imprisonment for murder convictions does not violate the U.S. Constitution when applied to defendants who committed their crimes as juveniles, the state’s Supreme Court has unanimously ruled.
Terrell Smith stabbed a man to death, and tried to stab another man, in Charleston in 2014, four months before Smith turned 18. Smith was convicted of both offenses and given concurrent 35- and 30-year sentences.
Smith appealed, arguing that the mandatory minimum law was unconstitutional because it placed adult and juvenile offenders on the same footing for sentencing purposes, and thus violated a string of recent decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court that culminated in its 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders for any crime, including murder.
Life sentences themselves remain permissible, but judges sentencing juveniles to life in prison must first conduct a hearing to consider the unique factors of the defendant’s case and any mitigating circumstances. Smith received such a hearing, and the trial judge considered all of the legally required factors before handing down the sentence.
Justice John W. Kittredge, writing for the court in a Nov. 20 opinion, found that this was sufficient to comply with the requirements laid out in Miller, and the mandatory sentencing law did not run afoul of either the spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings or the ban on cruel and unusual punishment found in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, upon which those rulings were based.
“We recently did an exhaustive analysis of the Roper–Graham–Miller trilogy and found we were constrained to narrowly interpret the holdings lest we—as an inferior (i.e., state) court—impermissibly broadened the reach of federal constitutional protections,” Kittredge wrote. “We are again being asked to ignore the confines of the holdings of the Supreme Court and instead extend the rationale underlying the holdings. As in Slocumb, we decline the invitation and leave resolution of the reach of the Eighth Amendment, including any possible extensions, to the Supreme Court.”
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that Miller applied retroactively. In light of that ruling, many states, including South Carolina, have had to reconsider life sentences that were handed down to juveniles before Miller was decided. Kittredge noted that the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions that have considered the issue have found that mandatory minimum sentences for terms shorter than life without the possibility of parole remain constitutional under both the Eighth Amendment and Miller.
“Now, it may be that the ‘evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society’ will compel the United States Supreme Court to rule someday that the Eighth Amendment prohibits any minimum mandatory sentences for juvenile offenders, but Miller did not mark that day,” Kittredge wrote, quoting a decision by the Supreme Court of Delaware that reached the same conclusion.
Justice Kaye G. Hearn wrote a brief concurring opinion saying that “while enabling trial courts to exercise more discretion in juvenile sentencing may be sound policy,” the U.S. Supreme Court has not spoken on this issue.
The Attorney General’s Office represented the state, and Appellate Defender Lara M. Caudy of Columbia represented Smith.
The seven-page decision is State v. Smith (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-073-19). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.
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