Life without parole OK for juveniles, Texas court rules

Sentencing juvenile murderers to life in prison without any chance of parole is not unreasonably harsh, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Wednesday.

Chris Joshua Meadoux, convicted of killing two San Antonio friends when he was 16, argued that his no-parole sentence violated the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment because juveniles lack maturity, judgment and an adult's sense of responsibility.

But in a 7-2 ruling, the state's highest criminal court said that juveniles may be less morally culpable than adults, but some actions justify imposing the second-harshest penalty available in Texas.

"Given the enormity of the crimes committed by juvenile capital offenders, the Legislature could reasonably conclude that such offenders are incorrigible \u2026 and that the only prudent course of action is to separate them from society forever," said the opinion, written by Judge Charles Holcomb.

Although Texas law no longer allows the practice, life without parole was available for juvenile capital murder defendants who were tried as adults from 2005 to 2009. Twenty teens were sentenced to remain jailed until they die, including Meadoux, now 20.

A dissenting opinion by Judge Lawrence Meyers said the court should have ordered new punishment hearings for Meadoux and the other juvenile offenders.

Meyers noted that after the U.S. Supreme Court banned executing juvenile killers in 2005, sentences for the affected inmates were commuted to life terms with the possibility of parole after 40 years served. "It's ridiculous to say that a juvenile who was not even eligible for the death penalty" should receive a harsher no-parole sentence, he wrote in the dissent joined by Judge Cheryl Johnson.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature voted to let jurors choose life without parole or execution for capital murder.

Four years later, the law was amended to ban no-parole sentences for those who committed murder while younger than 18. Several legislators said the move was intended to correct an oversight in the 2005 law, but the no-parole ban was not made retroactive.

Like lawmakers, the U.S. courts have long struggled with how to punish juveniles.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was permissible to execute offenders who were at least 16 at the time of their crimes. The court banned the practice 16 years later, acknowledging that juveniles are vulnerable to outside influence and susceptible to the whims of immaturity. Even the experts have difficulty separating juveniles who are irreparably corrupt from those who can be redeemed, the court said.

Last May, the Supreme Court added another limitation, ruling that juveniles may not be sentenced to life without parole for crimes that do not include murder.

That ruling, however, recognized "a moral line" between murder and other violent offenses that justifies no-parole sentences in capital cases, the Texas court said Wednesday.

"Serious non-homicide crimes may be devastating in their harm, but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to society, they cannot be compared to murder," the Texas court said. "A juvenile capital offender's moral culpability is still great even if it is diminished as compared to that of an adult capital offender."

The case is url=]Meadoux v. Texas, PD-0123-10.[/url]