An attorney for a Virginia man handed life in prison without parole for his murder conviction as a teenager told a federal appeals court Tuesday that the sentence was unconstitutional in light of a US Supreme Court decision that opened the door for inmates nationwide who were convicted as juveniles to seek their freedom.
The Supreme Court in 2012 struck down mandatory life terms with no chance of parole for teenage killers, and ruled earlier this year that even those convicted long ago must be considered for parole or resentenced. But it remains uncertain how those high court decisions will impact Jason Clem, whose case was heard Tuesday by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and more than a dozen others who are serving life terms in Virginia for crimes they committed as juveniles.
At issue is whether Virginia law mandates life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of capital murder.
Clem was convicted in 2005 of killing his boss, 64-year-old Robert Lacy, Jr., by stabbing him and hitting him in the head with a hammer at the restaurant where they worked before taking cash from the register and fleeing. Attorneys for Clem, who was 16 at the time of the killing, unsuccessfully argued an insanity defense during trial.
Amy DeLine, an attorney for Clem, told a three judge panel of appeals court that Virginia law today and at the time of the man’s conviction clearly violates the Supreme Court ruling because life without parole is the only option for juveniles convicted of capital murder.
“The statute as it stands is clear that the sentence is mandatory that it’s life without parole,” DeLine said.
But Senior Assistant Attorney General Robert Anderson rejected that argument, pointing to a recent decision by the Virginia Supreme Court in a similar case. The state Supreme Court denied another man’s bid for relief in 2014, arguing life sentences for juveniles convicted in capital murder cases cannot be considered mandatory because judges are allowed to suspend all or part of the sentence handed down by a jury.
“The Supreme Court of Virginia is the absolute last word on what a state statue provides,” Anderson said.
The Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in that case was recently vacated by the US Supreme Court and returned to the lower court for reconsideration. Some of the judges on the panel Tuesday questioned whether they should wait to see how the Virginia Supreme Court handles the case before making a decision in Clem’s.
DeLine argued that Virginia judges’ ability to suspend sentences is not enough to satisfy the desire of the Supreme Court, which said life sentences for juveniles should be rare, and only for the most heinous crimes. She noted that no Virginia judge has ever suspended the sentence of a juvenile convicted of capital murder.
The 4th Circuit is expected to issue a ruling in the case in the coming weeks. Steve Benjamin, a Virginia criminal defense attorney who is not involved in Clem’s case, if the court finds that the state’s law violates the Supreme Court ruling, lawmakers will have to act.
“If the court concludes that our juvenile sentencing scheme imposes an unconstitutional automatic life sentence, then the General Assembly will have to enact some form of relief for those that have been previously sentenced to life,” Benjamin said.
The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year favor of Henry Montgomery, who has been in prison for more than 50 years for killing a sheriff’s deputy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1963. The Washington DC-based sentencing project says that the Supreme Court ruling would allow most of the roughly 2,500 juveniles serving life-without-parole sentences in the country to seek early release.