Jones v. Mississippi

No. 18-1259 - Argued November 3, 2020
At Issue

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.

  • David M. Shapiro, for the petitioner
  • Krissy C. Nobile, for the respondent
  • Frederick Liu, for the United States as amicus curiae
Background and Case Commentary

Petitioner, Brett Jones, was convicted of murder in 2005 after killing his grandfather in 2004. Brett was fifteen years old when he committed the crime, and the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”). In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments bar mandatory sentences of LWOP for juveniles. The Mississippi Supreme Court vacated Brett’s sentence, but he was once again sentenced to LWOP on remand. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller applied retroactively. Montgomery said that Miller barred LWOP for all juvenile offenders other than those “whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,” a bar that was substantive and thus fell within an exception to the Teague v. Lane non-retroactivity of new rules on habeas corpus.

One important issue that arose during argument concerned the nature of the procedure to which Miller and Montgomery entitled Brett Jones but which he never received. Montgomery itself said that “Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement,” so petitioner could not argue entitlement to a formal factfinding. The Chief Justice at the beginning of argument asked what petitioner wanted, and it was critical to offer a clear response that kept faith with both Miller and Montgomery. What he said was that the sentencing judge did not understand his obligation to limit LWOP to incorrigible youths, pursuant to Miller and Montgomery. Given the judge’s lack of understanding, it was therefore incumbent upon him to offer some statement about the requirement that before imposing LWOP he must find the defendant incorrigible. This answer, while accurate enough, might have left the Justices without a clear statement of what exactly trial judges must do at sentencing to comply with Miller and Montgomery.

Jones v. Mississippi on Oyez:

Key Questions from Oral Argument

Chief Justice Roberts to Petitioner (2:16): Mr. Shapiro, I'm having just a little trouble figuring out what exactly it is that you're looking for. We know it can't be a formal finding, as I think you indicated, because of Miller and Montgomery's statements. And, obviously, you want more than just a hearing at which you'd have an opportunity to raise the -- the arguments. But what is it in the middle there? Is it just a statement on the record at some point during -- during a hearing? Is it, I don't know, some kind of informal hearing -- finding? What exactly do you -- do you need?

Sherry F. Colb: Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice. What we want is some evidence to rebut the appearance that the judge never considered whether Brett Jones was incorrigible. There is nothing in the record to refute that appearance.

We agree that an appellate court can ordinarily presume that a sentencing judge has followed the law, and we don’t need specific statements to that effect. Making that assumption here, however, is unwarranted because the judge did say what he considered, and it did not include incorrigibility. In addition, the Mississippi high court, remanding, had given an incorrect statement of the Eighth Amendment law and did not even mention incorrigibility. I have an analogy that I hope will shed light on the problem.

Imagine having a child with a peanut allergy. When you take him to a restaurant, you always make sure to first check an official online list of certified “peanut-free” locations. You generally trust the information on the list, so you set out with your child for brunch at “3 Potato, 4.” Upon arrival, however, the maître d’ says, “Welcome to 3 Potato, 4. We are happy to host you and your friends and families. We also have some excellent news about peanuts. We had been using an inferior dish detergent, but we now use a product that breaks down every last peanut into carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. Goodbye cross-contamination—you can tell everyone out there that if they get anaphylaxis, they can’t blame us!”

After hearing this introduction, your “default” state—trusting the restaurant to be peanut-free because of its online certification—would no longer apply. Something has happened to rebut the default presumption. The maître d’ made assertions that implicitly communicated that the restaurant had brought in peanuts and that people had perhaps even gotten sick from exposure to the peanuts. For you to return to trusting the restaurant, the maître d’ would have to do something or say something that could refute what he said and implied in his speech.

When everything goes normally, we assume people do what they are supposed to do. There need not be a formal moment of acknowledgment. Most of us would not, for example, ask our surgeon, who is about to operate on us, whether he has a medical degree. But when someone manifests a lack of understanding for what he is supposed to do, like the trial judge stating that he will weigh aggravators and mitigators without mentioning the incorrigibility eligibility criterion, we have reason to worry and need reassurance. In such situations, the law should require at least a statement from the judge (or from the maître d’, etc.) that he will in fact be following the rules that govern his conduct.