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U.S. Supreme Court Cites de la Vega and Leighton’s Research

May 18, 2010

Citing Professor Connie de la Vega and Director of Human Rights Programs Michelle Leighton's research in the Graham v. Florida decision reached May 17, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime.

"Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, left no doubt about the impact of Connie and Michelle's work on the ruling, citing their report 'Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison' and the brief they prepared on behalf of Amnesty International, additional NGOs, and international bar associations," Dean Jeffrey Brand said. "The ruling is about more than just the great reports that the USF School of Law Juvenile Life Without Parole Project has produced over the many years that Connie and Michelle have been working on it. It's about conditioning the courts to the importance of international treaty law and the practices of other countries to the disposition of domestic criminal issues—a concept which Connie and her colleagues have been working on for a long, long time."

The case involved Terrance Graham, who at age 16 participated in an attempted robbery in Jacksonville, Fla. and was sentenced as an adult to concurrent three-year terms of probation. While on probation, Graham was arrested for home invasion robbery. The trial court sentenced him to life in prison. Florida abolished its parole system in 2003 and Graham's sentence offered no possibility of release unless granted executive clemency.

Citing a University of San Francisco Law Review article by de la Vega and Leighton, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that imposing life without parole sentences on juveniles who did not commit homicide runs counter to international standards of juvenile justice. Leighton and de la Vega's research has established that the United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life in prison without parole.

"Under international law nobody under the age of 18 should be sentenced to life without parole—period," de la Vega said in a May 17 radio interview with KQED.

While international agreements, law, and practice are not binding, the judgment by the world's nations that this sentencing practice is "inconsistent with basic principles of decency" is relevant to the Eighth Amendment, Kennedy said.

Justice John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor concurred with Kennedy's opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts concurred in judgment that Graham should not receive life without parole for his crimes, but wrote in his opinion that he did not agree in the invention of a "new constitutional rule."

De la Vega's efforts to reform juvenile sentencing in the United States began with earlier work to abolish the death penalty for juveniles. Kennedy also cited de la Vega in his 2005 majority opinion in Roper v. Simmons, which declared the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional.

The USF School of Law Project to End Juvenile Life Without Parole received funding from the JEHT Foundation, U.S. Human Rights Fund, and the Ford Foundation. Click here to view the Graham v. Florida decision.