The Derek Bentley of the 21st Century

The case of Miller and Jackson made the headlines in the USA and Europe last week, following the US Supreme Court decision that juveniles sentenced to Life Without Parole for homicide offences should be entitled to a new sentencing hearing.  On first perusal this looks like a ground breaking decision of the US Supreme Court, but in reality it will do very little for most of the inmates who were sentenced to Life Without Parole while they were juveniles, other than provide many with false hope of release.

The circumstances of Kuntrell Jackson are very similar to those of Derek Bentley – all that separates them is a big pond and 60 years.  Kuntrell Jackson was 14 at the time of the homicide, he and two others decided to rob a video store.  En route to the store he realized that one of the others (Derek Shields) was carrying a firearm.  Kuntrell Jackson waited outside of the store while the other two went inside.  Derek Shields pointed the gun at the store attendant and asked her to give up the money. While the gun was still pointed at the attendant, Kuntrell Jackson entered the store, his version of what happened next is that he said to the others “I thought you all was playing..”  the State version of events is that he said to the attendant “we ain’t playing”.  Shields then shot and killed the attendant.

In most US States, felony murder attributes murder to all persons who had an intention to be involved in a felony and during the course of that felony a homicide occurred, regardless of whether the person actually killed or intended to kill.  The fact Kuntrell Jackson had planned to rob the video store, and during that robbery the attendant was killed by another was sufficient for transferred malice, and for him to be sentenced to Life Without Parole for homicide.

The Opinion of the  US Supreme Court in Jackson (and Miller) makes it clear that it has not given Jackson a get out of jail free card.  The court’s opinion is very prescriptive, and much more narrow that its previous decision (Graham) concerning Life Without Parole for non-homicide offenses.  The court has made it clear that Jackson’s case should be remanded, so that the court can determine Jackson’s intent with regard to the homicide,and reconsider the sentence.  The US Supreme Court even went so far as to indicate that if Jackson did have the intent for Shields to kill the store attendant, then Life Without Parole may still be an appropriate sentence.   Justices Breyer and Sotomayor went further and stated that ‘..this type of transferred malice is not sufficient to justify the intent to murder that could subject a juvenile to a sentence of life without parole…..The only juveniles who may constitutionally be sentenced to life without parole are those convicted of homicide offenses who ‘kill or intend to kill’.  These Justices opinions are persuasive, but not binding, and in States where the courts were happy to rule that transferred malice is sufficient to lock a kid up for life, it is highly unlikely the courts will now look kindly on these persuasive views.

Hence, Jackson, and many others like him have another chance of putting their case across in the hope of some kind of reduction in sentence, at least they are getting chance of release at some stage in their life, a chance that Derek Bentley never received.

Miller and Jackson US Supreme Court Decision

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About gurdena

Social Justice Lawyer, interested in all things contentious. Specialising in criminal law, and anything criminal justice related, also employment law. Door tenant at 1 Grays Inn Square chambers. Find out more at www.alisongurden.com

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