Release Date: April 22, 2021
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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A 6-3 decision upholds murderer’s life-without-parole sentence

In a 6-3 decision announced today, the U. S. Supreme Court rejected a juvenile murderer’s claim that the Court’s 2016 holding in Montgomery v. Louisiana invalidates his sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP). At issue in the case of Jones v. Mississippi was whether the Montgomery ruling changed the rules regarding what judges are required to do in order to sentence a murderer who was under 18 years old at the time of the crime to LWOP.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) had joined the case to argue that the high court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama did not contain any requirement for the sentencing court to find “permanent incorrigibility” before sentencing a juvenile to LWOP. To the extent that the Montgomery opinion implied such a requirement, it was a misinterpretation of Miller.

The Court’s majority opinion by Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh states, “In short, Miller followed the Court’s many death penalty cases and required that a sentencer consider youth as a mitigating factor when deciding whether to impose a life-without-parole sentence. Miller did not require the sentencer to make a separate finding of permanent incorrigibility before imposing such a sentence.... In light of that explicit language in the Court’s prior decisions, we must reject Jones’s argument.”

In a rare move, the Foundation also filed a second brief on behalf of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers and Arizona Voice for Crime Victims, Inc., to encourage consideration of the added impact that juvenile murder cases have upon the families of their victims each time a juvenile murderer’s release eligibility is reconsidered due to changes in rules and procedures.

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 Jones 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 his grandfather 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. Had Jones been over 18 he could have been sentenced to death. 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. The Mississippi Court of Appeals rejected that claim, finding that Jones was properly sentenced. The Mississippi Supreme Court denied review. 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 argued that the Montgomery ruling misstates what Miller required and that rule changes governing the sentencing of juvenile murderers have an enormous 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.” However, the Montgomery opinion also contains passages inconsistent with the addition of a fact-finding requirement.

“The Court today interpreted Montgomery in a way to make it consistent with Miller, discarding the portions that were inconsistent,” said Scheidegger.

In her separate brief, CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton argued 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 permanently set,” said Stapleton. “Then four years later Montgomery implied a subjective new requirement of finding that the murderer is ‘permanently incorrigible,’ leaving the law even more unsettled. Today’s decision is a victory for the families of victims murdered by juveniles,” she added.

Both Foundation briefs encouraged the high court to strike the required finding that a juvenile murderer is “permanently incorrigible” in order to sentence him to LWOP. The Court’s majority opinion utilized CJLF arguments and research.

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