It seems a considerable time ago that I made the decision to attend Birmingham City University (BCU) to earn my law degree. Looking back, before I enrolled, I was much more of an idealist and I was excited to join the School of Law because its views on capital punishment mirrored my own. When I became a second year student I was excited to do BCU’s flagship module – the American Internship – working on capital punishment cases. Unfortunately, circumstances arose which prevented my interning over in San Francisco, where I had secured my placement. Fortunately, it wasn’t the only opportunity for me, or any student, at BCU to get involved in capital punishment work.
BCU also offers a module looking at how the United States Supreme Court decides cases, and (providing there is a case likely to go before the Supreme Court of the United States) involves students contributing to the preparation of an Amicus brief in concert with Amnesty International. This is done by performing research, submitting memoranda of law on our research and these memoranda would be presented to the Counsel of Record who would then incorporate our results into their brief.
In early October, the news that there was a suitable brief for our involvement was disseminated. Lectures and seminars as we knew it would stop and instead research tasks would be assigned on a variety of issues (International law, Amici briefs on behalf of the State in the State Supreme Court and looking at the Supreme Court’s judgments in previous cases are an example of what some students had to do) and the deadline for submission was as soon as the work was finished, so that another research task could be assigned. It wasn’t learning in the traditional, academic sense – it taught practical skills as well as introducing us to a different working environment.
Another attribute of the module that was different to all the other modules that most students were studying was that, in some small way, we were helping real people. The Court would eventually release their judgment; they might decide the case on grounds that we did not do research on, but the Court would not find against the Appellants because our research had not been done.
Our case was Miller v. Alabama. It was conjoined with Jackson v. Arkansas. On 25 June 2012 the Court released its judgment in Miller v. Alabama. These two men, Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, had sat in jail since they were convicted as children in 1999. They would continue to spend the rest of their lives in jail without the possibility of ever being released for a crime committed as a child, and that just struck me as wrong. The Court held, 5–4, that it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to a life term of imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Court’s newest justice, Justice Kagan, authored the majority opinion.
The Court did not impose a categorical ban.
Justice Kagan wrote, on behalf of the majority:
By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Justice Thomas and Justice Alito, dissenting, expressed discomfort at the majority’s decision. They suggested that the Court’s holding arose for no other reason that the majority’s own sense of morality rather than because the text of the Constitution (a) permits the Court to shape the societal consensus of tomorrow, and (b) prevents a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts’ dissents discussed the evolving nature of juvenile justice.
The Court has left open the door to giving deserving candidates the punishment – it has just said that (a) it cannot be mandatory and (b) it cannot be done without reference to their background and characteristics. In practical terms, States that had previously offered capital punishment or life without parole to juveniles convicted of homicide, that now find themselves unable to give capital sentences (Roper v. Simmons) or life without parole (Miller v. Alabama), will now have to review cases in their jurisdiction where life without parole was the only sentencing option available or where it was the mandated option. The decision is likely to be unpopular in the 28 States that had adopted the practice.
In the end I’m thankful for the opportunity. Many universities offer pro-bono experiences, some even for academic credit, but I can’t think of many universities that offer that opportunity to work and affect real clients that face the harshest punishments around. I could have done various different modules at my university – I could have learned about employment law, company law or family law – I think I made the right choice. I have had to broaden my horizons, learned a lot of law that was never assessed in an exam (crucially knowing your work may affect someone’s liberty is a very sobering thought), learned different practical legal skills and looked at the highest court in the United States’ practices, history and decisions. As the announcement of the Court’s judgment filtered through Twitter, and I subsequently read the Court’s judgment, there really was no feeling like it – knowing that in some small way I helped.