Release Date:  October 30, 2020
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Oral argument in Jones v. Mississippi set for Tuesday, November 3

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument on election day in a case that may clarify confusion regarding the requirements states must follow for sentencing juvenile murderers to life in prison without parole (LWOP). At issue in the case of Jones v. Mississippi are the requirements spelled out in the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) has joined the case to argue that one aspect of the Montgomery opinion is bad law because it misinterpreted the precedent set in 2012 by Miller v. Alabama governing juvenile LWOP. In a rare move, the foundation has also filed a second brief on behalf of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers and the Arizona Voice for Crime Victims, Inc. to encourage consideration of the added impact that changing the parole rules for juvenile murder cases have upon the families of their victims.

Jones v. Mississippi involves the LWOP sentence given to Brett Jones for the 2004 murder of his paternal grandfather. Jones was 15 at the time of the murder. According to the trial record, in the Summer of 2004, while Jones was living with his mother and stepfather in Florida, he injured his stepfather during a fight and was arrested for domestic violence. In late July, Jones left Florida and moved into the home of his grandparents in Mississippi. In early August, Michelle Austin ran away from her parents’ nearby home and became Jones’ girlfriend, sneaking into Jones’ bedroom at night, and spending most days in a nearby abandoned restaurant. On August 9, the grandfather, 67-year-old Bertis Jones, caught the girl in his grandson’s bedroom and ordered her out of the house. The couple fled to the abandoned restaurant where Jones told Austin and his cousin that he was going to “hurt his granddaddy.”

Later that day, Jones returned to his grandparents’ house and stabbed his grandfather to death. When the steak knife he used bent during the assault, Jones grabbed a filet knife to continue. The victim was stabbed eight times, and there were defensive wounds on his hands. Jones dragged his grandfather’s body into the laundry room, cleaned up the blood, and went outside. A handyman working next door, who had heard the victim screaming, saw Jones covered in blood and holding a knife and ran inside to call 911. The homeowner returned to find the handyman in hysterics, and when he looked outside, he saw Jones hiding in the bushes. He asked Jones where his grandfather was, and Jones replied, “he’s gone.” A short time later, Jones and his girlfriend were arrested. During a pat-down, an officer found a pocket knife and asked Jones if it was the knife he used in the murder. Jones replied, “No, I already got rid of it.” At trial in 2006, Jones testified that he was in the kitchen making a sandwich when his grandfather attacked him, and he accidently stabbed him. Then when his grandfather continued the attack, Jones stabbed him again because he “was afraid.” He claimed that he tried to administer CPR, but he had stopped breathing. He admitted putting the body in the laundry room and trying to clean up the blood.

The unanimous jury returned a verdict of deliberate-design murder. The judge sentenced him to LWOP, noting that there was no evidence that the grandfather had attacked Jones, that the murder was particularly brutal, that Jones attempted to cover up the crime, and that the grandfather had provided Jones with a home away from his troubled family environment in Florida.

Following the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, Jones won a Mississippi Supreme Court decision ordering that he be resentenced under the new requirements announced by the high court. In April 2015, having reconsidered the sentence in light of the requirements under Miller, including multiple witnesses testifying to Jones’ troubled childhood, the new sentencing court again gave him LWOP. Four years later, in its Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling, the U. S. Supreme Court held that Miller applied to cases long since final as well as those presently pending on appeal. The Court reached this result by saying that Miller established a rule of substantive law, not just procedure, that “juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth” cannot be sentenced to LWOP, limiting that sentence to juveniles who are “permanently incorrigible.”

Jones appealed, arguing that Montgomery requires a specific finding that he is “permanently incorrigible” and that because the judge made no such finding he is entitled to a new sentencing hearing. Both the Mississippi Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court rejected that claim, finding that Jones was properly sentenced. When the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Jones’ appeal, CJLF joined the case.

In two amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs, CJLF attorneys argue that the Montgomery ruling misstates what Miller required, and that changes in the rules governing the sentencing of juvenile murderers have a severe impact on victims’ families.

A brief authored by CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger notes that in Miller the Court stated, “Our decision does not categorically bar a penalty for a class of offenders or type of crime.... Instead, it mandates only that a sentencer follow a certain process—considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing a particular penalty.”

The brief then cites the later Montgomery ruling where Justice Kennedy wrote, “Miller, then, did more than require a sentencer to consider a juvenile offender’s youth before imposing life without parole.... [I]t rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for ‘a class of defendants because of their status’—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth.”

“The Montgomery ruling clearly misstates what Miller required, extending it to include findings not contemplated by the earlier ruling,” said Scheidegger. In her separate brief, foundation Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton argues that over the past 15 years, the Supreme Court has handed down successive rulings which have raised the bar on what is required in order to guarantee the most depraved juvenile murderers never gain release back into society. These rulings forced resentencing of dozens of murderers, requiring the families of brutally killed victims to relive the crimes and fear the possibility that the killer might be released. “With its Miller decision, the Court promised that the rules were now permanently set,” said Stapleton. “Then four years later in Montgomery we are given a subjective new requirement of finding that the murderer is ‘permanently incorrigible,’ leaving the law even more unsettled,” she added.

Both foundation briefs encourage the high court to strike the required finding that a juvenile murderer is “permanently incorrigible” in order to sentence him to LWOP.

Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger and Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton are available for comment at (916) 446-0345.