In a decision likely to be appealed, the Michigan Court of Appeals recently decided that the Sixth Amendment requires juveniles facing the sentence of life imprisonment without parole to have their sentence determined by a jury.
People v. Skinner, like most juvenile cases involving the potential for life imprisonment without parole, involves a particularly gruesome story. Seventeen year-old Tia Skinner was convicted with first-degree murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit murder. Skinner arranged the murder of her parents, providing a map of the neighborhood and a way of entry into her parents' home after asking two men to kill her parents. Skinner's father was killed in the attack; Skinner's mother suffered twenty-six stab wounds but survived. Skinner's request to be sentenced by a jury was denied, and the trial court judge sentenced her to life imprisonment without parole. In mid-August, the Michigan Court of Appeals heard Skinner's appeal and ruled that the Sixth Amendment entitles Skinner to be sentenced by a jury.
The Skinner decision comes as a result of two distinct lines of case decisions from the United States Supreme Court involving the Eighth Amendment--the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment--and the Sixth Amendment--a criminal defendant's right to a jury. In Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court decided that where juvenile offenders are potentially subject to life imprisonment without parole, the court is required to consider the offender's youth during sentencing. The Supreme Court recognized that juvenile characteristics like diminished culpability and the potential for rehabilitation, as well as the overall percentage of life that the juvenile will spend imprisoned, make life imprisonment particularly harsh for juvenile offenders. Miller did not make life imprisonment for juveniles unconstitutional; it required that the state look at each juvenile individually and consider youth as a mitigating factor before doing so.
Miller did, however, render unconstitutional all state statutes requiring life imprisonment as a sentence for juveniles. In response, Michigan enacted MCL 769.25, legislation providing rules on how to seek a life sentence for a juvenile without violating Miller's interpretation of the Eighth Amendment. According to MCL 769.25, if a prosecutor wants to seek a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on a juvenile offense, the prosecutor must file a motion to do so within a particular amount of days. Following the motion, the court must conduct a hearing to consider the mitigating qualities of youth. The court then decides whether to sentence the juvenile to life imprisonment without parole or a certain period of years of imprisonment (called a "term-of-years" sentence). If the prosecutor does not file the initial request for such a hearing, the juvenile will receive a sentence to a certain amount of years of imprisonment.
Though MCL 769.25 created a system for courts to utilize in compliance with Miller, the Michigan Court of Appeals decision in Skinner maintains that MCL 769.25 violated other United States Supreme Court cases. Specifically, Skinner referenced a line of Supreme Court cases interpreting the Sixth Amendment's right to a jury (Blakely, Apprendi, Alleyne). These cases established that any fact that increases the offender's sentence beyond what the judge could sentence based on the jury verdict alone, must be heard by a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
According to the structure of MCL 769.25, based solely on a jury verdict, the most a juvenile offender could be sentenced to is a term-of-years sentence. In order for the juvenile offender to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, (1) the prosecutor must move for a hearing, and (2) the trial judge must make additional findings during that hearing. When Tia Skinner was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of a term-of-years sentence, it was due to findings made by the judge, not by the jury. Because her sentence was increased by the judge and not the jury, the increased sentence violated Skinner's Sixth Amendment right to a jury.
Moving forward, juveniles facing life imprisonment sentences will be entitled to have a jury impaneled to determine whether the juvenile is so "irreparably corrupted" as to deserve life imprisonment rather than a term-of-years sentence. Juvenile offenders will have the opportunity to explain their criminal actions as a result of the immaturity and recklessness of youth to a jury.