In the fall of 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in the Jones v. Mississippi case. Petitioner Brett Jones was 15 when he murdered his grandfather Bertis Jones by stabbing him to death. Jones was sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for the crime. In this case, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will determine if the Eighth Amendment requires a sentencing authority to find that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before sentencing them to LWOP. The issue is around the case of discretionary life sentences, where the courts have sentencing options, whereas the Miller v. Alabama and associated cases centered around mandatory life sentences for juvenile murderers.
At the time of the crime, defendant Brett Jones was 15-years-old and living with his grandparents in Lee County, Mississippi. On August 9, 2004, Bertis discovered Jones’s girlfriend in Jones’s bedroom and told her to leave the house. Jones told his girlfriend that he would hurt his granddaddy. Later, Jones stabbed Bertis eight times with a fillet knife. Jones was charged with murder and the case went to trial. Jones argued that he killed his grandfather in self-defense. The jury found him guilty and the court sentenced him to LWOP.
After the Miller decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated and set aside Jones’s sentence and remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing consistent with Miller. The hearing was held by the Circuit Court of Lee County in 2015 and the court found that Jones was not entitled to parole under Miller. Jones appealed to the Mississippi Court of Appeals which affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision. Jones then sought certiorari from the Mississippi Supreme Court. Mississippi’s Supreme Court granted certiorari in August 2018 and held oral arguments. In November of 2018, the Court found that there was no need for further review and dismissed the certiorari. Jones then filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States. SCOTUS granted the petition on March 9, 2020, after dismissing the Malvo v. Mathena case. SCOTUS will hear oral arguments this fall.
Whether the Eighth Amendment requires the sentencing authority to make a finding that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole.
This is yet another SCOTUS case regarding the sentencing of the rare and relatively small population of extremely violent juvenile criminals who have committed the most aggravated murders and received serious long term prison sentences. While we recognize the need for systemic criminal justice reform, as with all dynamic human institutions of our civilization, the campaign by well-funded advocates for juvenile justice reform in the 21st century continues to prioritize the well-being of these offenders without regard to the larger issues that include victims and victims’ rights and the devastation in victims’ lives caused by crimes as consequential as murder.
Despite almost a decade and a half of us asking these juvenile justice advocates to please simply include us in their work – to grant us a small measure of consideration as well – they continue to ignore our requests. We have asked them to keep us informed about their work, include us in policy discussions, and show consideration for the especially hard burden that victims’ families bear for the rest of their lives in these murder cases. They have refused.
We can only ask that the media and the American public please remember that the victims’ families in these cases have asked to be heard from, and are here in NOVJM wishing to be included in these public policy discussions. But we do not have funding or staff. Just our broken hearts. The Jones case could profoundly impact the lives of the victims’ families and the loved ones of those murdered by these teen killers who are now incarcerated for their crimes.
We do not know how many cases of juvenile murderers will be affected nationally with this SCOTUS case. We guess that possibly thousands of murder victims’ family members like us could have their lives changed by a potential SCOTUS decision re-opening the sentencing processes for the offenders in our cases. Worse, most of these families do not know that a potentially life-changing ruling could come from the Supreme Court without any notice to them.
It has always been the position of NOVJM that victims’ families have a right to be notified of, and heard in, these profoundly important cases that could so dramatically change their lives in a negative way. Re-opening of the wounds of a trauma such as a protracted legal battle after the murder of a loved one, long after the offender had been sentenced, believing finally to have some legal finality, only to discover later that it is starting all over again . . . these proceedings are incredibly hard on victims’ families.
We ask the Supreme Court to consider how incredibly hard on us it will be if they decide that in the future we will have to face a never-ending series of parole hearings and re-traumatizing re-engagement with the murderers who killed our loved ones. We believe victims’ families deserve legal finality and minimal re-visits to the criminal justice system to re-engage with people who so totally wrecked our lives. We hope that everyone involved understands that we will be the ones serving “life sentences” of a different kind if the killers are back in our lives anew every few years before a parole board.
Trauma is “dose-dependent” and frequency and intensity make a huge difference in bearing the scars of that trauma, and even worse, being constantly re-traumatized. The less re-engagement with these killers we have in the criminal justice system, the better for our lives. We hope that a guiding principle that the Court will hear from us will be that victims’ families deserve some legal finality with as minimal an amount of re-engagement with the killers in criminal justice proceedings as possible.
If you would like to speak with NOVJM about this case, please contact us through our Speakers Bureau. We want to be heard. But we are having a hard time being heard as we have nowhere near the amount of funding and resources as advocates of teen killers have.
Our Amicus Brief
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT
The pain that surviving family members experience
when their loved one is violently and horrifically
murdered is indescribable. Life without the possibility
of parole exists for good reason and legal finality for the
family is one of them. Miller’s core holding requires an
individualized sentencing process in which a judge or jury has the opportunity to consider mitigating evidence
of youth. Jones received a sentencing hearing in which
a judge evaluated and considered the factors laid out in
Miller and determined that life without parole was an
appropriate sentence. A constitutionally mandated
factual finding of permanent incorrigibility would
disrupt legal finality and require many murder victims’
families to relive much of the trauma they thought they
had put to rest.
The possibility of parole for a murderer is a life
sentence for many victims’ families. An unrelenting
series of parole hearings in which the victims’ families
must repeatedly oppose parole prolongs their suffering.
The frequency and intensity of each re-engagement
with the killer years after the murder can trigger
devastating flashbacks and memories and reopen
This is just a summary of the brief’s points. Read the entire brief through the link below.
Constitutionally mandating that a juvenile murderer be found “permanently incorrigible” before being given LWOP would have a significant negative impact on families of victims who were murdered by juveniles. When an offender gets an LWOP sentence, the victims often believe that their painful ordeals with the criminal justice system are over. But if SCOTUS were to require courts to retroactively re-sentence juvenile murderers and determine if they are incorrigible, victims’ emotional wounds would be re-opened. By retroactively changing a sentence that victims believed to be permanent, legal finality is disrupted and victims suffer tremendously. Victims who believed they would never have to face the killers again would be forced to endure agonizing re-sentencing hearings. Victims’ suffering is also prolonged when the killers are eligible for parole, as they have to endure repeated parole hearings. This forces them to re-live the crimes and denies them from having a sense of legal finality. We explain the pain victims experience when re-engaging with the offenders by telling the stories of Eric Kane and Catherine Pauley Haynes, who were murdered in 1986 and 1993 respectively.
NOVJM argues that punishments should fit the offenders and not be based on their ages alone. We support a wide range of sentencing options as there is lots of variation among juvenile criminals. Juvenile criminals cannot all be lumped together as being “less culpable.” We do not doubt that youth typically are more immature, irresponsible, susceptible to peer pressure, impulsive, and poorer at understanding the consequences of their actions. But not all juveniles are the same. As we explain:
“'[E]ven if everything
said about the adolescent brain and juvenile immaturity
is generally true, why would one assume that juveniles
who commit heinous crimes are typical juveniles?”
Lerner, Juvenile Criminal Responsibility: Can Malice
Supply the Want of Years?, 86 Tulane L. Rev. 309, 332
(2011). Thus, the persistent lumping together of all
juveniles into one group and all delinquent behavior
into one construct ignores the victims’ families whose
lives have been shattered by the tragic loss of their
Criminal sentences should be based on the culpability, intent, and actions of the individual offenders in question, not on the common traits of other typical offenders in their age group.
NOVJM believes that the vast majority of teen criminals are able to be rehabilitated and should
be treated in the juvenile justice system. But there are some who can be considered among the worst offenders and who are too dangerous to ever be released into society. “For this Court to broadly conclude that no juvenile killer can ever ‘with reliability be classified among the
worst offenders,’ no matter how vile and calculating the crime committed, is ludicrous.” We detail several crimes committed by juveniles that are just as reprehensible as those committed by adults–the murders of Oliver “Chip” Northup and Claudia Maupin and the murder of Cassie Jo Stoddart. We explain the impacts these crimes had on the families of the victims.
Lastly, we request the Court to not use the term “children” to describe juvenile murderers. As we explain, this term is associated with innocence and vulnerability and paints a false image of young elementary school-age children who need protection and support. This image does not accurately reflect the reality of juvenile murderers who are sentenced to LWOP, most of whom were 16 and 17, and who are not innocent and vulnerable. “Amici vehemently
object to this Court’s usage of the term ‘children’ when referring to individuals who acted with such violence, brutality, and depravity.” The usage of the term “children” is described more here.