Crime & Courts
10:32 am
Tue November 12, 2013

How To Sentence Juvenile Killers? State Supreme Court Weighs 1988 Case

Two men convicted in the grisly slaying of an elderly couple when they were teens could get parole if the state Supreme Court rules in their favor.

The two men, Russell Duane McNeil and Herbert Chief Rice Jr., have asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider their sentence based on the US Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama. In that case, the high court ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole.

The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on Tuesday. Ultimately, the justices will decide how to sentence juveniles found guilty of aggravated murder.  

After Miller, several prisoners in Washington state filed motions to have their cases reviewed. The court chose to hear the McNeil case, with Rice as his co-defendent.

McNeil and Rice were 17 when they were charged in the 1988 murders of Mike Nickoloff, 82, and his wife Dorothy, 74. The Nickoloffs were found stabbed to death in their farmhouse south of Yakima. At the time, there were two sentencing options for the teens: death or life without the possibility of parole. 

In a friend of the court brief, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote that the US Supreme Court ruling is retroactive. The ACLU urged the Washington justices to exercise their authority to apply it to these petitioners.

Miller is the most recent ruling since 2002 that relies on modern brain science. The justices have argued that teen brains are not fully developed, and therefore teen killers should not be held to the same sentencing standards as adults.

Writing for the majority in Miller, Justice Elena Kagan noted that in 28 states, juveniles were sentenced without consideration for modern brain science or their upbringing. “Their ‘lack of maturity’ and ‘underdeveloped sense of responsibility’ lead to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking,” Kagan wrote.

State law often prevented judges from giving teens more lenient sentences. McNeil and Rice, both 17, were both sentenced under Washington state’s mandatory sentencing guidelines.

Following Miller, California, Delaware and Wyoming changed their sentencing laws for minors.