When juveniles commit serious crimes in the United States, including in West Virginia, our Constitution affords them considerable protection against a lifetime spent in prison or death row. Recognizing that a juvenile’s decision-making abilities are often not fully matured when crimes occur, and that rehabilitation and support can be better goals than punishment, the Supreme Court has consistently held that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life imprisonment or death. A recent case in the Fourth Circuit clarifies that in circumstances in which a crime requires mandatory sentencing of life imprisonment or death, a juvenile may not be tried for the crime as an adult, no matter the circumstances.
In United States v. Under Seal, a juvenile defendant, whose name has not been released because he is a juvenile, was involved in a gang-related murder. Although he was not yet 18 at the time, the United States government sought to transfer him to be tried as an adult for his crimes. In particular, the government sought to charge him with murder in aid of racketeering under 18 U.S.C. 1959(a)(1). Under the language of the statute, the only punishments authorized for the crime were either life imprisonment or the death penalty. Accordingly, the juvenile defendant contested the transfer, arguing that it would be unconstitutional to try him as an adult because juveniles cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment or death. The government argued in response that the court had leeway to sentence the defendant to less than life imprisonment. The district court disagreed, finding that the language of the statute unambiguously required them to sentence the defendant to either life imprisonment or death, which they could not do. For this reason, they denied the transfer.
On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, the United States government did not disagree that Supreme Court rulings prohibited the juvenile defendant from being sentenced to life imprisonment or death. Instead, it argued that the language in the statute requiring these penalties to be imposed for murder in aid of racketeering could be severed from the statute in this case and that language authorizing sentencing of a term of years for kidnapping in aid of racketeering could be used instead. This would allow the district court to impose a constitutionally acceptable sentence. While the Fourth Circuit acknowledged the principal of severability as a way to get around issues of unconstitutionality, it noted that in this instance “articulating a crime and providing a penalty for its commission are indelibly linked.” Moreover, the legislature had specifically determined that life imprisonment and death should be the only two penalties imposed for murder in aid of racketeering. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit determined that it was not the court’s role to re-determine the penalties authorized for certain criminal conduct. Instead, in this instance, the juvenile defendant could not be tried as an adult for the crime alleged.
While innocent victims of violent crimes may find it difficult to accept lesser charges for violent juvenile offenders, the protections imposed by the United States Constitution serve important public policy purposes and prevent individuals from being sentenced to an entire life in prison for crimes committed when they were young. If you or a family member have been charged with a crime as a juvenile in West Virginia, important protections are available to you. For more information on these constitutional issues and general criminal defense, contact the West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm. We have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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