WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday grappled with how to decide a convicted Mississippi murderer’s challenge to his sentence of life in prison without parole for a crime he committed at age 15 – a sentence he argued was unconstitutional based on a 2012 ruling by the justices.
The court heard arguments by teleconference in an appeal brought by Brett Jones, now 31, who was convicted of fatally stabbing his grandfather in 2004 in a dispute involving Jones’ girlfriend.
The appeal seeks to expand the reach of a 2012 Supreme Court ruling in which the justices decided that mandatory life sentences without parole in homicide cases involving juvenile killers violated the U.S. Constitution Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court had previously ruled that juveniles cannot be executed and only juveniles accused of murder could be subject to life without parole sentences.
In 2016, the justices decided that the 2012 ruling applied retroactively, meaning that convicted criminals imprisoned years earlier could argue for their release.
The Jones case concerned whether a judge must separately find that a juvenile offender is “permanently incorrigible” before imposing a life-without-parole sentence. The trial judge who sentenced Jones did not do so.
The justices on Tuesday asked questions during the argument on what exactly judges are required to do at sentencing, with some indicating a specific finding of incorrigibility should not be required.
Since the 2016 ruling, the makeup of the court has changed, with the addition of three justices appointed by President Donald Trump, creating a 6-3 conservative majority.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito seemed eager that the newly constituted court reverse course on curbing juvenile sentencing under the Eighth Amendment.
“What would you say to any members of this court who are concerned that we have now gotten light years away from the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment and who are reluctant to go any further on this travel into space?” Alito asked Jones’ lawyer.
The newest justice, Trump appointee Amy Comey Barrett, was participating in her second day of arguments since being confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate last week. Barrett wondered why Jones did not simply challenge his sentence directly under the Eighth Amendment rather than relying on the 2012 precedent.
Of the 50 states, 29 allow life-without-parole sentences for juveniles and 20 states have no prisoners serving such sentences, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that supports sentencing reform.
The Supreme Court last year took up a case involving Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 when he took part in the deadly 2002 “D.C. Sniper” shooting spree in the Washington area, to decide the legal question in the Jones case.
The court ended up dismissing that case after Virginia, where Malvo was sentenced, changed its parole law. The court then took up the Jones case instead.
A ruling is due by the end of June.