On behalf of 37 juveniles in South Carolina who have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, Cornell law students and professors are working to abolish sentences that may constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” according to Prof. John Blume, law.
In August, Blume and Keir Weyble, an adjunct professor of law, founded the Cornell Juvenile Justice Clinic, a clinic that assists juvenile defendants facing life sentences, because, according to them, juvenile sentences of life without parole should be deemed unconstitutional.
Even after the U.S. Supreme Court case of Miller v. Alabama, which upheld the ruling that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional, juvenile offenders in South Carolina still serve life without parole sentences, according to Blume.
“[Miller v. Alabama] called into question the life without parole sentences that were handed down to 37 South Carolina inmates. The sentencing procedures where these kids got sentenced to life without parole did not look anything like the sentencing hearing in a capital case,” Blume said.
Blume said he found the South Carolina cases particularly unfair because the judges in these cases made a decision after hearing — on average — less than five minutes of an argument. Additionally, he said, the judges did not take into account any background evidence other than their reason for conviction.
As a result, Blume said he recruited Weyble to create a juvenile justice clinic to address the problems he observed in South Carolina’s judicial system.
“These kids have a powerful story to tell, and the judge should know and take them into consideration. We are not saying that they shouldn’t be punished, but in calibrating the right punishment, the judges should know more,” Blume said.
Blume — whose investigation focused on five juvenile offenders in particular — said each of the five seemed to have extenuating circumstances that should have been factored into their sentence: one juvenile offender was mentally retarded and sexually abused, two had mothers who abused alcohol and drugs and another was a first generation immigrant whose father died of gangrene, a condition in which the bodily tissues die and decay.
“So in our ‘Legal Wishlist,’ the first goal would be to have life without parole declared cruel and unusual punishment for any juvenile. If we don’t get that, the second thing we have asked for is that even if life without parole is a sentencing option, all of our clients are still entitled to new sentencing hearings,” Blume said.
These new sentencing hearings should take into consideration the juveniles’ background stories and mental states in the same way a capital case does, Blume said.
Five third-year Cornell Law School students participated in the clinic during the last academic year, and each were paired with one of these five juveniles to learn more about their cases and personal histories. They traveled to South Carolina last year to visit the juveniles and met with their family members, coaches and teachers, according to Blume.
One student on the team, Suzy Marinkovich law, said she learned how to empathize with and interact with the clients.
“I think you learn pretty quickly that your approach has to be really friendly and not ‘well, I’m a lawyer.’ You wouldn’t come in with a suit on. Part of it is just having a rapport with them,” Marinkovich said.
Katherine Ensler law, another student on the team, also said she had a similar experience working with clients.
“The biggest challenge was learning how to at least try to minimize [the barriers between our different backgrounds], but they definitely exist. I think we’ve all had different types of ways to work to get to know the families better and create environments where we can function the best we can to help our clients,” Ensler said.
Though the law students said they hope judges would take into consideration the information they learned when and if they reassess their sentences, Blume said he expects resistance to their efforts.
“I think the biggest challenge at the moment is probably judicial resistance to the idea that you can’t tell a really bad kid from a kid who did a really bad thing. Many judges think they have better insight into human nature and character than they probably should have,” Blume said.
Despite the resistance, Jessica Hittelman law, another student in the Cornell Juvenile Justice Clinic, said the opportunity to work on this project was refreshing.
“It’s exciting to be able to work on an issue that’s so fresh legally,” Hittleman said. “The Miller decision just came down and almost immediately, we were working on it. It’s pretty cool as a law nerd.”