Supreme Court Justice Kennedy is seen as the potential swing vote in two cases questioning whether life without parole for 14-year-old killers is cruel and unusual punishment.
Justice Anthony Kennedy took center stage Tuesday as the US Supreme Court began examining two cases testing whether life in prison without parole is cruel and unusual punishment for someone who committed murder at age 14.
Much of the two hours of argument in the cases from Arkansas and Alabama were directed at Justice Kennedy, who is widely seen as wielding the potential swing vote that could win the case for either side.
Based on his questions, Kennedy appears to be searching for a means to rule for the two juveniles and somehow invalidate the mandatory imposition of life without parole for some category of young offenders.
Such a ruling would extend the same reasoning embraced by the high court in two landmark cases involving juveniles, and it would add another precedent to an emerging jurisprudence of juvenile punishment.
In 2005, the high court invalidated the death penalty for those age 18 and younger. Five years later, the court again cited the same reasoning and ruled that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a non-homicide crime also violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Both cases were decided by 5-to-4 votes, and both were written by Justice Kennedy.
Now the justices are being asked to extend that same reasoning yet again, this time to bar the imposition of life-without-parole sentences to convicted murderers who were 14 years old at the time of their crime.
“We are not suggesting that states should not be able to impose very harsh punishments and very severe sentences on even children who commit these kinds of violent crimes,” Bryan Stevenson, a Montgomery, Ala., attorney, told the justices.
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