The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Wednesday the state is violating the U.S. Constitution when it sentences juveniles convicted of aggravated murder.
The court said a sentence of life in prison without considering that youth offenders are developmentally different than adults convicted of the same crime is in conflict with the Eighth Amendment.
“In this case, we are asked to determine the constitutionality, under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, of a sentence — specifically, life imprisonment — imposed on a juvenile offender … when such a sentence is imposed without regard to the individual characteristics of the juvenile defendant,” Judge Bronson James wrote for the majority.
“We conclude that the imposition of life imprisonment … on juvenile offenders without individualized considerations of youth by the sentencing court, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.”
The ruling stems from the March 2001 death of Barbara Thomas. She was killed by her teenage son and four of his friends, including Justin Link, near Redmond, Oregon. Marc Brown, the chief deputy public defender who argued the case, said Link didn’t pull the trigger.
The teens became known as the “Redmond Five.” After killing Thomas, the teens stole her car and drove for Canada. They were arrested when they tried to cross the border.
Link was found guilty of aggravated murder and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 30 years in prison, with the possibility of applying for parole after that. It’s that sentence that the court of appeals vacated Wednesday. Link is now set to be resentenced.
The appeals court’s ruling is an attempt to bring the state in line with a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision: Miller v. Alabama.
In that case, the nation’s high court ruled it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment to sentence a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole if that’s the only sentence a judge or jury can impose. In other words, those imposing sentences need options.
On paper, Oregon has two options for sentencing juveniles convicted of aggravated murder. Life without the possibility of parole; or a minimum sentence of 30 years in prison after which your sentence may be converted to one with a possibility of parole. But the possibility of parole isn’t a given. First, defendants have to prove they will be rehabilitated, then the sentence is converted, and only then can they apply for parole.
In its ruling Wednesday, the appeals court said the conversion hearing was “future focused.”
“It considers whether a person ‘is likely to be’ rehabilitated at a future date, not whether the individual was less blameworthy due to their youth at the time of the offense,” James wrote. “What the provision does not consider is immaturity at the time of the offense, nor how such immaturity lessened the culpability or blameworthiness of the defendant.”
In his dissent, Judge Douglas Tookey wrote the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller under a different set of circumstances.
“I conclude that Oregon’s aggravated murder sentencing scheme does not run afoul of the Eighth Amendment, as interpreted by those decisions, because [the law] allows the sentencer to impose the lesser sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 30 years, and requires the sentencer to consider any relevant mitigating evidence about the offender’s youth and its attendant characteristics before imposing a sentence of life without the possibility of parole,” Tookey wrote.
The ruling follows a vote Tuesday by the Oregon Senate to adopt Senate Bill 1008, which includes changes to the way juveniles are sentenced.
“This decision, along with the passage of SB 1008 in the Senate yesterday shows that Oregon takes the emerging science of juvenile brain development seriously and is not willing to give up on the youth of our state,” said Brown.
The bill working through the Legislature heads next to the House Judiciary Committee. House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, who chairs the committee, said the court’s ruling underscores the need for the legislation.
“It makes it clear there is an issue we have to deal with: How we’re going to deal with sentencing juveniles, instead of leaving the system intact as it is and letting the courts continue to find that it’s unconstitutional and having each court send the case back for resentencing,” Williamson told OPB. “That’s unnecessary litigation when we know we could pass legislation to clarify it moving forward.”
The House Judiciary Committee plans to hold a public hearing on SB 1008 this month. The bill includes a host of changes to how serious juvenile offenders are sentenced in Oregon, including a provision that juvenile offenders are eligible for a parole hearing after 15 years of imprisonment.
The bill also would ensure juveniles who are at least 15 aren’t automatically tried as adults for a host of serious crimes, and allow some juvenile inmates to be released rather than transferred to the Department of Corrections if their sentence is nearly finished.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the victim of the 2001 murder. OPB regrets the error.
OPB’s Dirk VanderHart contributed to this story.