ST. LOUIS • A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday has offered a chance of freedom to thousands of juvenile offenders nationwide who are serving life sentences for murder.
The justices voted 6-3 on a broader application of a 2012 ruling that struck down automatic life terms for young killers. Now, even those who had exhausted their appeals on decades-old convictions will get a chance at parole or a new sentence.
The impact here could be big.
Missouri is one of just nine states, including Illinois, that account for 82 percent of juvenile sentences of life without parole, according to a recent study by the Phillips Black Project, a public interest law firm that represents inmates facing severe sentences.
Of about 1,300 to 2,300 cases hanging in the balance nationally, at least 81 cases are in Missouri.
And the city of St. Louis, according to the study, has the fifth-highest concentration of juveniles serving life sentences in the country, with as many as 41 cases.
Monday’s ruling will affect inmates such as Ralph McElroy, who at 17 was convicted in the fatal shooting in 1987 of a north St. Louis man, Johnnie Fleming. Fleming was reportedly trying to break up a fight in the West End when he exchanged words with McElroy, a bystander. Officials said McElroy left the scene, returned with a sawed-off rifle and shot Fleming.
“He’s not an angry young boy anymore; he’s a grown, mature man,” said his mother, Margo McElroy, in a phone interview Monday. “I think my son deserves a second chance. He can contribute to society.”
McElroy, of St. Louis, said they were thrilled to hear of the court’s ruling, which they had been anxiously awaiting.
“I’m really sorry about Mr. Fleming, but regardless of whether my son spends the rest of his life in jail or not, it’s not going to bring Mr. Fleming back,” she said. She said her son, now 46, “has paid with all of his adult life.”
The Supreme Court has over the past decade moved away from the harshest sentences for youths, recognizing the undeveloped state of a young criminal’s mind and the opportunities for rehabilitation. In 2005, Roper v. Simmons eliminated the death penalty for juveniles. In 2010, Graham v. Florida did away with life sentences for youths convicted of non-homicides.
Then in 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the court outlawed mandatory life sentences for young killers, too. The ruling did not outright ban life sentences for youth but said that they could no longer be automatic and that certain individualized factors relative to an offender’s age must be considered.
The ruling left open several thorny issues. One of them: whether Miller should apply just to future cases or to old ones, too.
Monday’s ruling was in the case of Henry Montgomery, who at 17 was sentenced to life for the killing in 1963 of an East Baton Rouge, La., police officer.
Authoring the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the Louisiana Supreme Court was incorrect in refusing to apply Miller retroactively.
Kennedy pointed to a 1989 ruling that considered the issue of retroactivity in federal habeas proceedings. In a summary of the ruling, the court held that while “new constitutional rules of criminal procedure are generally not retroactive, it recognized that courts must give retroactive effect to new watershed procedural rules and to substantive rules of constitutional law.”
The court determined here that Miller addressed a “substantive rule” of constitutional law and thus applied to old cases.
“Substantive rules set forth categorical constitutional guarantees that place certain criminal laws and punishments altogether beyond the State’s power to impose,” the summary read. “It follows that when a State enforces a proscription or penalty barred by the Constitution, the resulting conviction or sentence is, by definition, unlawful.”
Up until now, states had taken a range of approaches in applying Miller — and some, like Missouri, had balked.
Missouri’s courts granted new sentencing hearings to a handful of defendants who had appeals pending at the time of the ruling. But the state’s top court had yet to take up the issue of retroactivity in cases where appeals were exhausted.
And a legislative fix has repeatedly floundered. The law still says the penalty for first-degree murder must be either death or life in prison without parole.
Last year, the state Senate passed a bill to allow a killer under 16 to receive a sentence of at least 35 years, or life without parole; and someone 16 or 17 to be sentenced to 50 years, or life without parole. A House version offered an alternative sentence of 25 to 40 years for murderers under 18, but it never reached the floor for debate. The differences were never reconciled.
Illinois is farther ahead on the issue. The Illinois Supreme Court decided in 2014 that Miller applied not just to pending cases, and in 2015, the Legislature eliminated mandatory life without parole for juveniles.
Missouri prosecutors had feared a decision in Montgomery would catch the state flat-footed — with no statutory solution to guide what should happen with the new cases, let alone the old.
On Monday, their predictions came true.
“I appreciate the opinion that came down today, but unfortunately for Missouri, it didn’t give us a clear path of where we need to be,” said Beth Orwick, chief trial assistant for St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.
In the ruling, the justices proposed a solution to address Montgomery, without creating too much burden on the system or disturbing the original conviction: offer parole eligibility.
The court noted “it would afford someone like Montgomery, who submits that he has evolved from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community, the opportunity to demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition — that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”
But, Orwick noted, “there has to be a mechanism in each state to do that, and unfortunately in Missouri there is no mechanism yet.”
“It’s frustrating, because right now we really need a legislative solution for this,” she said.
Karen Kraft, a division director with the state public defender’s office, praised the court’s decision as “the right ruling and the only one that makes sense.”
“If you are using the rationale that there shouldn’t be life without parole for juveniles because of their diminished capacity, the same would be true of someone who was convicted in 1985,” she said.
But she agreed it was too early to tell how the ruling would be addressed locally. She anticipated a wave of new appeals on older cases, filed by lawyers who had been waiting to see what would be decided in Montgomery.
Margo McElroy, whose son may benefit, has trouble understanding the confusion.
“The question should have never come up,” she said. “They have to at least get a chance. We’re talking about children.”