South Carolina's high court orders new sentences for some juveniles convicted of homicide

At least 15 South Carolina felons serving life sentences for homicides they committed while they were minors are eligible to return to court to be resentenced for their crimes, a divided S.C. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The 3-2 decision cites the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole in instances where juveniles commit murder.

The high court called such sentences "cruel and unusual punishments" under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Wednesday's ruling does not mean any of the 15 inmates will necessarily get out of prison any time soon or that a time reduction will occur.

Some had existing and lengthy criminal records or had committed other violent offenses in the course of their homicides.

None is believed to have committed the murders in the Charleston area, though not all of the crime locations could be immediately verified. All 15 either pleaded guilty or were convicted after a jury trial.

Some committed their crimes so long ago that they are now in their 30s.

But a key common thread, the ruling said, is that all were sentenced to life without parole under sentencing procedures that made no distinction between defendants whose crimes were committed as an adult and those who committed them as juveniles.

In its decision Wednesday, a slight majority of the South Carolina justices agreed with the notion that mitigating factors should be considered when sentencing a youth. The Miller case, for example, established a specific five-part framework for courts to consider in framing sentences regarding juveniles and homicide.

Those parameters include: the chronological age of the offender, including someone's "immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate the risks and consequence;" conditions of the family and home environment; circumstances of the homicide, including the extent that peer pressure was involved; the maturity level of the suspect in dealing with police, prosecutors and defense attorneys; and the possibility for rehabilitation.

The court called such considerations "appropriate procedure."

"While we do not go so far as some commentators who suggest that the sentencing of a juvenile offender subject to a life without parole sentence should mirror the penalty phase of a capital case," the decision said, "we are mindful that the Miller Court specifically linked the individualized sentencing requirements of capital sentencing to juvenile life without parole sentences."

It continued, "Thus, the type of mitigating evidence permitted in death penalty sentencing hearings unquestionably has relevance to juvenile life without parole sentencing hearings, in addition to the factors" listed by the court.

The federal ruling applied to mandatory sentences and the U.S. Supreme Court justices avoided declaring whether the new standard should be applied retroactively to older cases. South Carolina's high court, however, not only called for a rehearing of older cases but applied the new parameters to all juveniles cases where life sentences were imposed, even when that decision was at a judge's discretion.

Colin Miller, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and who participated in a moot court dry run of the Supreme Court arguments with attorney John Blume, called the high court's ruling "significant" and a victory for juvenile rights. He said the court went beyond what many observers expected in extending projections to all juveniles facing life without parole.

"That was not a foregone conclusion," he said. "Here we have the Supreme Court of South Carolina saying the state will not impose life without parole on a juvenile without looking at the totality of the person in this situation."

Chief Justice Jean Toal dissented from the majority in a separate opinion, saying South Carolina already employs a discretionary sentencing scheme where courts consider all mitigating evidence presented by a criminal defendant.

"Thus, South Carolina courts already consider the hallmark features of youth," she said. Justice John Kittredge concurred with her findings.

Lawyers originally argued the case in January. At least one woman is among the group of 15 convicted murderers who can now apply to have their sentences re-heard.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551