SCOTUS Backs Mississippi Court of Appeals, Rules Life without Parole for Defendants under 18 Is Constitutional

By Ankita Joshi and Koda Slingluff  

MISSISSIPPI – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, on a 6-3 vote, that a sentence of life without parole for defendant Brett Jones, who was under 18 when convicted, and other teens like him, is Constitutional.

The ruling held the Mississippi Court of Appeals original ruling that Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana does not require a finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a defendant under the age of 18 to life without parole.

In August 2004, Brett Jones and his grandfather, Bertis Jones, got into an argument after Bertis had discovered Brett’s girlfriend in his room. Bertis immediately ordered Jones’ girlfriend to leave to which Jones replied that he “‘was going to hurt’” his grandfather.

Later that day, Brett was in the kitchen making himself a sandwich when he and his grandfather got into another argument. Their argument escalated into physical shoves and punches, which was when the younger Jones stabbed his grandfather with the kitchen knife he was holding.

Brett Jones then proceeded to take a second knife and stab his grandfather eight more times. He was 15 at the time.

While bleeding, Bertis was able to make it outside of the house before collapsing. However, Jones did not call 911, and instead dragged his grandfather’s body back inside the house and cleaned himself up.

During this altercation, a neighbor had noticed Jones outside and called the police. After attempting to run away with his girlfriend, Brett Jones was arrested at a gas station that night.

During trial, the teenage Jones claimed self-defense, but this was rejected by the jury, and Jones was found guilty of murder.

At the time, Mississippi law held that murder carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole, which was the original sentence given to Jones.

However, in 2012, Miller v. Alabama ruled that the Eighth Amendment “permits a life-without-parole sentence for a defendant who committed a homicide when he or she was under 18, but only if the sentence is not mandatory and the sentencer therefore has discretion to impose a lesser punishment” under the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.

And while the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered that Jones be resentenced, the sentencing judge held that life without parole was the appropriate sentence for Jones’ crime.

Once again in 2016, a new case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, ruled that a defendant under the age of 18 must be found “permanently incorrigible” before being sentenced to life without parole.

Under Montgomery and Miller, Jones took his case to the Mississippi Court of Appeals in 2017, but again his argument was rejected.

After both these rejections, Jones’ case was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court on November 3, 2020 in hopes that Miller and Montgomery would require a finding of “permanent incorrigibility” before sentencing a defendant under the age of 18 to life without parole.

The opinion of the court was delivered on April 22, by Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The court ruled that a discretionary sentencing system “is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient,” thus making the finding of permanent incorrigibility unnecessary in cases where a murderer under the age of 18 is sentenced to life without parole.

In their opinion, the Court found that a Mississippi trial judge acknowledged the sentencing discretion under Miller before sentencing Jones to life without parole. Thus, as the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed, that discretionary sentencing procedure was enough to satisfy the requirements under Miller. 

The premise of Jones’ case included that a discretionary sentencing procedure was not enough to satisfy Miller, and that there must be a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility in order for a defendant to be sentenced to life without parole.

This argument was formulated on the basis that “the Court has recognized certain eligibility criteria, such as sanity or a lack of intellectual disability that must be met before an offender can be sentenced to death,” and should apply the same reasoning to finding permanent incorrigibility when sentencing a murderer under 18 to life without parole.

However, Jones’ above argument was found to be inconsistent with previous precedents of the Court.

Montgomery cited that “a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility . . . is not required,” which with the explicit language used was the primary factor in the Court rejecting Jones’ argument.

The opinion also noted that “about 850 of the individuals who committed a homicide were known to be under 18—meaning that, on average, more than two homicides were committed every day by individuals under 18” in 2004 when Jones murdered his grandfather.

As a result, there have been a series of Eighth Amendment cases that apply the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause in youth matters concerning sentencing.

Roper v. Simmons (2005) removed the possibility of capital punishment for youth homicide offenders, and Graham v. Florida (2010) prohibits life without parole sentences for youth who committed non-homicide offences.

The ruling in Graham marked that “there is a line between homicide and other serious violent offenses against the individual,” thus allowing consideration for life without parole sentences for defendants under the age of 18 who have committed homicide.

Miller and Montgomery also explicitly stated within their rulings that the only requirement present is “that sentencer follow a certain process—considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing a life-without-parole sentence.”

The argument for a finding of permanent incorrigibility was further disputed with the inclusion that “it is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”

Thus, the Court found that Miller only requires the sentencer to weigh mitigating circumstances of an incident, and consider the defendant’s “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change.” This would satisfy the individualized consideration element present in Miller. 

Overall, the Court found that Miller “followed the Court’s many death penalty cases,” and Montgomery does not add to the requirements presented by Miller. 

The second distinct argument present in Jones’ case was that Montgomery assumes “a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility,” based on applying Miller being found as a substantive holding.

Jones cites language from Montgomery that reserves life without parole for the permanently incorrigible, which adds to his argument about a separate factual finding being necessary.

The Court opinion refuted this argument by quoting from Montgomery that “a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility . . . is not required.”

The requirements present through Miller and Montgomery find that discretionary sentencing is enough to ensure “ that life-without-parole sentences are imposed only in cases where that sentence is appropriate in light of the defendant’s age.”

The third and final distinct argument present in Jones’ case is that the rulings of Miller and Montgomery “sought to ensure that life without parole for murderers under 18 would be relatively rare,” and the only way to ensure this is through a finding of permanent incorrigibility.

This argument was refuted by the Court through statistics from 15 States that employ discretionary sentencing regimes, and found that sentences of life without parole for murderers under the age of 18 are relatively rare.

Jones’ alternative argument that if there isn’t a factual finding of permanent incorrigibility, there should at least be an on-record finding of permanent incorrigibility was also struck down by the Court for four reasons.

First, an on-record explanation is not necessary to ensure that a sentencer considers a defendant’s youth, as the sentencer has their own discretion and it would “all but impossible for a sentencer to avoid considering that mitigating factor.”

Second,  an on-record explanation is not required under the rulings of Miller. In the opinion, the Court found that “Miller did not even hint at requiring an on-the-record sentencing explanation with an implicit finding of permanent incorrigibility.”

Third, an on-record explanation is not required or consistent with death penalty cases, and is not necessary to ensure that the sentence considers mitigating factors. In fact, the Court noted that it has never required an on-record explanation or factual finding on those mitigating factors.

Fourth, an on-record explanation “is not dictated by any historical or contemporary sentencing practice in the States.” An example of how juries are not required to supply reasons/explanations for their verdicts was also cited within this argument.

The Court’s final decision was based on the rulings, language, and interpretation of Miller and Montgomery.

However, the dissent in this ruling found that the majority opinion was “narrowing” the interpretation of Miller and Montgomery, and wants “an additional constitutional requirement that the sentencer must make a finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a murderer under 18 to life without parole.”

Justices Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan disagreed with the ruling opinion. The dissension was delivered by Sotomayor, who said the Court was effectively gutting Miller v. Alabama.

Sotomayor supported her view with Roper v Simmons, a supreme court case from 2005 which ruled that the Eighth Amendment forbids capital punishment for children.

She also explained that Miller does require a sentencer to decide if an accused child’s crimes “reflect transient immaturity” or “irreparable corruption.” Because of this, the court needs to find out if Jones would be considered the first or second category.

Another case, Graham v. Florida, ruled  underage offenders cannot be given life sentences without parole for non-homicide offenses, noting, “Regardless of how it is imposed, a juvenile death sentence is unconstitutional under Roper, and a juvenile sentence of [life without parole] for a non-homicide offense is unconstitutional under Graham.”

Sotomayor condemned the court for not following stare decisis, the legal principle of using precedent to determine rulings. Stare decisis is a fundamental aspect of the supreme court, since it is the basis for using historical cases as foundation for judgements.

“How low this Court’s respect for stare decisis has sunk. Not long ago, the doctrine was recognized as a pillar of the ‘rule of law,’ critical to ‘keep the scale of justice even and steady, and not liable to waver with every new judge’s opinions,’” Sotomayor said, quoting Justice Kavanaugh from an earlier case.

The dissent also addressed Jones’ grandmother, Madge Jones, whose husband he killed.

Madge Jones testified at his resentencing hearing and submitted a statement to the court saying she remains “steadfast in her belief that Brett is not and never was irreparably corrupt.” She also said that she speaks with her grandson weekly, and that the rest of his family also remains “by his side.”

Concluding the dissent, Justice Sotomayor said, “Jones should know that, despite the Court’s decision today, what he does in life matters. So, too, do the efforts of almost 1,500 other juvenile offenders like Jones who are serving [life without parole] sentences. Of course, nothing can repair the damage their crimes caused. But that is not the question.”

“The question is whether the State, at some point, must consider whether a juvenile offender has demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation sufficient to merit a chance at life beyond the prison in which he has grown up… For most, the answer is yes.”

Overall, it was found that the resentencing of Jones in the Mississippi Court of Appeals fell in line with that of the Court’s precedents, and did not violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment.

The opinion of the Court ended with the statement that States are able to impose their own sentencing limits in cases involving murderers under 18. And, also noted Jones is able to present the arguments of his good record in prison, and growth in character to the state officials authorized to grant him some relief from his sentence.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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