An estimated 250 state prisoners serving life terms for murders committed while under age 18 could get new sentencing hearings after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday.
The court ruled that state laws requiring life sentences without parole for juveniles constitute "cruel and unusual punishment," and judges must consider a juvenile's age and the nature of the crime at sentencing. In Florida, judges have no discretion when handing down life terms for first-degree murder convictions.
Now, most Florida prisoners who committed murders as a juvenile can bring their cases to a judge for a sentencing rehearing. State prison records show 17 inmates are serving life sentences for murders committed in Lee and Collier counties as a juvenile.
The ruling still allows judges to uphold life without parole sentences.
Juvenile advocates hailed the decision from the Supreme Court, which has issued several rulings in recent years that potentially ease penalties against violent juveniles. Advocates argue that scientific studies show juveniles are still maturing before age 18 and shouldn't be bound by sentencing laws designed for adult convicts.
"It's a landmark decision that was expected based on the previous decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court," said Paolo Annino, a Florida State University law professor who specializes in children's legal issues. "We know that kids are different, and therefore they need to be treated differently in the sentencing process."
While advocates heralded the decision, 20th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Steve Russell said the ruling could open new wounds for victims' families.
"At first glance, I am particularly concerned that murder victims' families, who felt they had finality through a life sentence, may have had the rug pulled out from under them," Russell said in a statement. "While it is important to note that this opinion does not mean that juvenile murderers cannot receive a life sentence, it will require extensive legislative changes to existing sentencing law."
Many of the 17 prisoners convicted of local murders were involved in some of the region's most violent killings. They include Roderick Washington and Ashley Toye, convicted in the 2006 Cash Feenz double murder; Mazer Jean and Jermaine Jones, convicted of using a pickax and machete to kill a juvenile justice employee in Collier County in 1998; and Joshua Henninger, found guilty in the 2005 rape and bludgeoning death of a Cape Coral high school honor student.
It's unclear whether all 17 would be eligible to have their sentences reheard.
Ilona Vila, director of the Orlando-based Juvenile Life Without Parole Defense Resource Center, said her organization plans to contact about 250 state prisoners to notify them about Monday's ruling.
For those eligible for rehearings, lawyers will gather evidence that could persuade a judge to reduce a sentence. That evidence could include psychological reports, school and social services records, prison records showing good behavior and scientific studies about brain development, among countless other documents.
"In order to have experts collect all the records needed to evaluate clients and prepare for these resentencing hearings, it takes a long time," Vila said.
The rehearings could somewhat mirror recent sentencing revisions for juveniles who received life sentences for non-homicide crimes, which the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Florida v. Graham in 2010.
Bryan Gowdy, a Jacksonville-based lawyer who argued the Graham case, said if the Graham hearings are any indication, older convicts with exemplary prison records could benefit the most from Monday's opinion.
"Some of them don't change and should get very severe sentences," Gowdy said. "But if somebody has shown change in 20 years in prison, that helps."