JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A divided Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the life prison sentence given to a teenager convicted of killing a St. Louis police officer.
The case stems from the August 2007 shooting death of Norvelle Brown, who was killed while patrolling alone. Antonio Andrews, who was 15 at the time, was charged as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder and armed criminal action. Missouri law requires that people convicted of first-degree murder be executed or sentenced to life in prison.
Andrews' attorney, Brocca Smith, argued that a mandatory life prison sentence amounts to cruel and unusual punishment because judges and juries cannot consider juveniles' age, maturity and other mitigating factors before deciding upon the sentence. She also challenged Missouri's system in which judges decide whether juveniles accused of crimes can be prosecuted as adults.
The state high court rejected both arguments in a 4-3 decision. The majority said that life prison sentences are allowed for juveniles in murder cases, concluding that a jury was not necessary for a juvenile proceeding to determine whether a teen could be prosecuted as an adult.
Judge Michael Wolff, in one of two dissenting opinions, wrote that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole is cruel and unusual punishment and might even be worse than the death penalty. He said the sentence bars juveniles from leaving prison even if they have examined their conscience and repented.
According to court records, Andrews and another teen ran away after being chased by the police officer and Andrews fired because he was tired of being chased. Brown, who was 22, had been a police officer for only nine months when he was killed. He had requested to be assigned to the rough neighborhood where he grew up.
Brown was killed by a bullet that entered through the back of his left shoulder, pierced both lungs and exited through his right armpit.
During oral arguments in October, the Missouri attorney general's office told the Supreme Court that nearly every state has lifetime prison sentences. It argued that it makes little difference whether a life prison sentence without parole is selected or mandatory.
A spokeswoman for the office had no immediate comment Tuesday on the high court's ruling.
Smith, Andrews' lawyer, said she likely would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In recent years, the courts have focused on how to handle juveniles accused of serious felonies and other crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 barred the execution of juveniles, and this year it determined that they could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole in non-murder cases.
Smith said mandatory sentences of life in prison seemed a logical next step.
"Juveniles are being found by science to be very different from adults, and the criminal courts are starting to recognize that," she said.
Nationwide, more than 2,200 teens have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, according to a 2007 report by the Equal Justice Initiative. The Montgomery, Ala.-based group represents juveniles, death row inmates and the indigent, and opposes the sentencing of young teens to life prison terms without the opportunity for parole.
Case is Missouri v. Andrews, SC91006
Courts at http://www.courts.mo.gov