Texas Backs Off Law That Treats 17-Year-Olds Convicted of Capital Murder as Adults

Texas has reacted to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling stating that mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment for minors.

On June 12, 2013, Texas senators acted within hours on Governor Rick Perry’s call for them to back a new punishment for 17-year-olds who are convicted of capital murder.

They backed a requirement for the possibility of parole in the case of 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder after they have served at least 40 years.

Associated Press reported the Senate Criminal Justice Committee met just a day after the Governor added the item to the special session’s agenda.

Previously Texas previously required a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole to be imposed in capital cases involving 17-year-old offenders.

The law was called into question in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in an Alabama case that stated life sentences for minors without parole were cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court considered the case of Miller v Alabama last year. Evan Miller, who was 14 at the time, along with a friend, beat Miller’s neighbor and set fire to his trailer after an evening of drinking and drug use. The neighbor was killed. Miller was initially charged as a juvenile, but his case was removed to adult court in Alabama, where he was charged with murder in the course of arson. A jury found him guilty, and the trial court imposed a statutorily mandated punishment of life without parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that required mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders who are convicted of homicide. Although judges are free to impose such sentences, state laws cannot now require them to do so. Judges must also consider the defendant’s age as a factor when sentencing.

Texas law has considered 17-year-olds to be adults, a stance that’s inconsistent with the Supreme Court which considers them minors.
The bill introduced by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would make their mandatory punishment the same as that of 14 to 16-year-old offenders – life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years.

“Texas has historically in capital murder cases had either a life-or-death sentencing scheme and has taken, I would say, a very strong law and order approach to those who have intentionally committed a murder in the course of a rape or robbery,” she was quoted by AP as saying.

According to Huffman there are about 26 people in Texas prisons whom courts sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.