May 2010 Archives

May 26, 2010

Graham v. Florida: 8th Amendment Limits Sentences for Juvenile Offenses

In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the US Supreme Court decided that people could not be put to death for crimes that they commit before they turn age 18.  Extending that ruling, the Court has now decided that people cannot be given "life without parole" sentences for non-homicide crimes they commit before they are 18 years old. The case is Graham v. Florida (2010).

Terrance Graham was a crack baby who became a troubled teen-ager. Graham violated probation for an earlier violent crime by participating in an armed home invasion robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison, which in Florida meant that parole was not possible.

The Court stated that the law "denied Graham any chance to demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law. This the Eighth Amendment (barring cruel and unusual punishment) does not permit." 

The upshot of the Court's opinion is that life without possibility of parole sentences are unconstitutional for crimes that people commit while they are juveniles.  The decision does not mean that Florida must someday release Terrance Graham.  It means only that Florida and all states must provide people like Terrance Graham with an opportunity to show that they have reformed and are capable of leading a decent and law-abiding life.

May 10, 2010

Renico v. Lett (2010)- Justice Delayed Is Justice

Reginald Lett was charged with murdering a cab driver.  In Lett's first trial, the judge declared a mistrial when the jury foreman told the judge after only 4 hours of deliberation that the jury would be unable to reach a unanimous verdict.  Lett was tried again, and a second jury convicted him of second-degree murder.  

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Lett's claim that the judge in Trial No. 1 violated the Double Jeopardy Clause by forcing Lett to undergo a second trial.  Lett argued that the trial judge erred by declaring a mistrial and subjecting Lett to a second trial after the jury had deliberated for only four hours.   The Supreme Court denied Lett's claim on the ground that "the trial judge's exercise of discretion- while not necessarily correct- was not objectively unreasonable."  (Renico v. Lett, US Supreme Court 2010)  The case demonstrates that trial judges often have broad discretion over how trials are conducted, and that higher courts should only interfere if a trial judge's decision is pertty much off the charts.


May 5, 2010

Faisal Shahzad and Miranda Rights

Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen of Pakistani descent, has been charged with terrorism-related offenses for attempting to set off a car bomb in NY's Times Square on May 1, 2010.  Post-arrest events revived a debate over whether arrested suspects are entitled to be advised of their Miranda rights. These rights consist of the police advising suspects that they have a right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them in court, and that a lawyer can be appointed for them at government expense if they are unable to afford counsel.

Many civil libertarians argue that all arrestees are entitled to Miranda warnings (and other procedural rights).  Opponents argue that terrorists are enemy combatants who are not entitled to be treated like ordinary criminals. For a discussion of the opposing attitudes, see

What's interesting is that the debate may be pointless.  Miranda has been part of the US criminal justice system since the mid-1960's, and studies have repeatedly shown that warnings have little effect on suspects' willingness to speak to police officers.  Suspects typically sing like canaries.

Shahzad's behavior is consistent with the results of these studies.  After Shahzad's arrest, FBI agents interrogated him without advising him of Miranda rights, under a so-called "publis safety" exception. According to published reports, Shahzad provided important information to the agents. FBI agents then advised Shahzad of his Miranda rights and continued the interrogation.  Nothing changed; Shahzad continued to provide information to the FBI agents.

Can we have our cake and eat it too?  That is, can we provide civil liberties to terrorist suspects without compromising public safety?  Numerous studies and the behavior of captives like Faisal Shahzad suggest that the answer is "yes."