Michigan court ends conflict over juvenile life sentences

Court Watch

Judges, not juries, have the sole power to decide whether someone under 18 gets life in prison without parole, the Michigan Supreme Court said Wednesday.

The 4-2 decision settles a conflict at the state appeals court and clears the way for more than 200 new sentencing hearings for so-called juvenile lifers that have been on hold for more than a year.

The Supreme Court said there are no constitutional violations in allowing a judge to order a no-parole sentence for a teen. Chief Justice Stephen Markman, writing for the majority, said a trial judge doesn't need to find any particular fact before choosing the highest punishment.

The case landed at the Supreme Court after the Michigan appeals court in 2015 said a no-parole sentence for a minor would fit only if a jury finds that the crime is the result of "irreparable corruption," something so heinous that parole shouldn't apply. Markman, however, said the interpretation was wrong.

"If the trial court simply finds that there are no mitigating circumstances, it can sentence a juvenile to life without parole," he wrote.

Separately, many Michigan juvenile lifers who are serving no-parole sentences are eligible for a new hearing because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision. But those hearings were suspended while the state Supreme Court grappled with two cases that led to a decision Wednesday.

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