State prosecutors must work around juvenile sentencing ruling
JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -
In 2006, Deandre Dampier was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He was just 16 years old at the time of the crime. Now, a ruling from the Supreme Court will make Dampier eligible for parole.
"In Mississippi, you are parole eligible at age 65," said Madison and Rankin Counties District Attorney Michael Guest.
Based on the Eighth Amendment of cruel and unusual punishment, the 5 to 4 decision from the high court ruled juveniles, like Dampier, cannot be automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole for murder.
The ruling stems from a case out of Alabama. Guest says he wasn't surprised by the decision, especially after the court already ruled the death penalty for juveniles to be unconstitutional.
"It just kind of seemed a natural progression in the way in which the court was leaning," said Guest.
That now poses a conflict for one Mississippi statue. Currently, there's only two sentencing options for juveniles convicted of capital murder. It's either the death penalty or life without parole. With both of those ruled unconstitutional, Guest says prosecutors have to make some changes.
"You'll be seeing more cases prosecuted in which the state will no longer seek capital murder but charge with murder and some additional other crimes," said Guest.
Since it's a constitutional issue, Guest expects the ruling to be retroactive. Convicted murders serving a life without parole sentence, who were convicted as a juvenile, will have to petition the court to become parole eligible.
According to the Department of Corrections, that's anywhere from 40 to 60 people.
"This doesn't affect or set aside those pleas of guilty or those jury convictions. This only relates to the sentencing portion," said Guest.
With the statue now unconstitutional, any changes to the law will have to be made by lawmakers, if a capital murder charge for a juvenile can ever be applied. Until then, Guest says overall, the ruling will have little impact on how cases against juvenile offenders are prosecuted.
"If you're talking about someone having to spend the next four decades of their life behind bars, I believe that's definitely an appropriate sentence," said Guest.
One notable Mississippi case where a teenager was charged with murder is that of Luke Woodham, who was convicted in the 1997 shootings at Pearl High School. The decision from the Supreme Court will not affect that case because instead of life without parole, Woodham was sentenced to three life sentences plus 140 years.