Fla. Supreme Court Deciding Whether Juveniles Serving Life In Prison Get New Hearings

Mar 6, 2014

Credit Florida Department of Corrections

More than 200 Floridians serving life in prison for crimes they committed as minors could get new sentencing hearings, depending on how the state Supreme Court rules on a case it heard today. The court must decide whether a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision applies retroactively to previously sentenced juveniles.

Rebecca Falcon was 15 when, according to court records, she shot a Panama City cab driver in the head during an attempted robbery. Records also show Falcon had been sexually abused; she was depressed; she’d never committed a crime before; and she participated in the robbery “impulsively” at the urging of older boys she was hoping to impress. But because Florida law requires life sentences for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, Falcon’s judge and jury were not allowed to consider any factors that might have justified a lesser sentence than the one she got: life without parole.

During oral arguments in Falcon’s case, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente said the girl’s situation is hardly unique.

“Children, for the last 20 years, who, no matter what the circumstances—whether somebody was, they were somebody’s girlfriend or boyfriend—and the trial judge says, ‘I don’t want to have to give this sentence, but I have no choice,’ they get life without the possibility of parole to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state of Florida,” she said.

Fifteen years passed after Falcon was sent to prison. Then in a 2012 case called Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled juveniles are entitled to individual sentencing that takes all factors into consideration—in other words, mandatory life sentences are unconstitutional. A bill moving in the Legislature aims to bring Florida’s juvenile sentencing rules in line with that decision. But Justice Peggy Quince asked: What about the hundreds of juveniles who’ve already been sentenced to life without any mitigating factors considered?

“So we just turn our backs on the fact that there are 200-and-some—even if you say 500 of them—young people who are sitting in jail forever?”  she asked.

But Trisha Meggs Pate, an attorney for the state, argued the Miller decision does not apply to old cases, adding it might be difficult to re-sentence offenders anyway.

“You’re going to have to have witnesses, we’re going to have to have facts about the crime scene, how the crime occurred, what happened, medical examiners, and some of these cases are 20 years old that are final, that have been final for a long time,” she said.

Justice Fred Lewis cut her off, asking, “Can I ask a question as you’re going through this litany of horribles? Should the fact that we’re dealing with our children be factored in that equation in some way?”

Pate answered: “Well, we’re dealing with juvenile murderers and only juvenile murderers.”

Lewis replied, “I understand that, but they are considered juveniles.”

Several of the court’s seven justices asked, if they do rule Miller applies to old cases, whether re-sentencing hearings would be necessary or the chance for parole would suffice.

Pate says the state believes re-sentencing would be necessary—and she asked the justices at least provide trial courts some guidelines on how to proceed.