Mo. life sentence for juveniles still in flux

A western Missouri prosecutor who heads a statewide association for prosecuting attorneys said Tuesday that lawmakers’ failure to pass a new sentencing structure for juveniles could delay or jeopardize the trials of teens accused of murder.

Under Missouri law, anyone convicted of first-degree murder is either sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 said death sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, leaving life without parole as the only sentencing option for Missourians younger than 18 who are convicted of murder.

But in June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down automatic life without parole for juvenile offenders — sentencing the federal government and at least two dozen states including Missouri all followed.

That decision has left juveniles currently locked up and those awaiting trial in limbo. Missouri lawmakers tried to change the state’s automatic sentence but could not reach agreement before adjourning last week.

Eric Zahnd, prosecuting attorney in Platte County, north of Kansas City, said the Legislature’s inaction is “really disheartening” and the entire criminal justice system is now “in a lurch.”

“We are extremely disappointed that lawmakers failed to specify a punishment for these heinous murders,” said Zahnd, who is president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

The U.S. Supreme Court said life without parole sentences could not be mandatory or automatic and state courts had to look at certain factors before sentencing, including a juvenile’s role in a crime and his or her upbringing.

“Under these (current) schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other — the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court’s 5-4 majority.

The chairman of the Missouri Senate’s judiciary committee proposed a measure that left life without parole as a possibility but also would have allowed a court to sentence a juvenile to 50 years in prison. The proposal from Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, would have required a second hearing to determine sentencing if the juvenile was convicted of first-degree murder. It also would have allowed those already in prison for killings committed while they were juveniles to ask for new sentencing hearings.

Opponents said the plan would not have solved the problem because 50 years in prison amounts to a life sentence, violating the court’s directive against automatic life sentences for juveniles. Others argued that life prison sentences should not be an option for teens.

Other states also have been scrambling to pass new sentencing guidelines for juveniles after the Supreme Court decision striking down automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles.

But the fate of Missouri’s 84 inmates who were convicted before the 2012 court ruling remains uncertain. The decision could fall to the Missouri Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments for three cases on April 30 in which people serving prison sentences for murder sought new hearings because the crimes occurred before they turned 18.

Posted earlier:

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Prison sentences for Missouri juveniles convicted of first-degree murder remain uncertain because lawmakers did not pass a new sentencing scheme before adjourning.

Under state law, people under 18 convicted of first-degree murder are automatically sentenced to life without parole. But a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision said such automatic sentences are unconstitutional.

The high court said states had to consider an offender’s upbringing and role in the crime before sentencing a juvenile to life without parole.

Republican Sen. Bob Dixon, of Springfield, proposed legislation that would have left life without parole as a possibility but also would have allowed juveniles to be given a 50-year prison term. But it stalled in the closing days of the Legislature’s session that ended last week.

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