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New law could significantly impact juveniles in murder cases

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon recently signed a number of updates to the state's criminal laws. One of them, inspired by the tragic events in Ferguson in 2014, clarified the regulations regarding the use of deadly force by law enforcement. The old statute didn't provide specific guidance as to when deadly force would be authorized, but the new one incorporates the standard set forth in a landmark 1985 United States Supreme Court case that had been adopted by many other states already.

Specifically, the case - and now the law - says that lethal methods (namely gunfire) should only be employed against a fleeing suspect when he or she "poses a significant physical danger to the officer or others in the community."

Juvenile homicide sentencing gets an overhaul

Another key statutory update involves the sentencing of juveniles convicted of murder charges. The update is once again to bring Missouri law into compliance with guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court, this time from 2012 case of Miller v. Alabama. That case involved a 14-year-old convicted of murder and sentenced to mandatory life in prison with no possibility for parole. The Court found that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment prevents a juvenile offender from receiving a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole.

Missouri hasn't had a valid sentencing guideline scheme for juvenile homicide offenders since Miller v. Alabama came down years ago. The updated law, while not retroactive, will provide hope for rehabilitation and eventual release for future juvenile offenders. It allows prosecutors to seek imprisonment for a term of 30-40 years or life with the possibility of parole. Life without parole can only be a sentencing option if the jury unanimously agrees with the recommendation, and if there are extenuating factors (like torture of the victim) shown.

In addition, juries will now be allowed to consider mitigating circumstances during the sentencing phase of juvenile murder cases, including:

  • The possibility of rehabilitation
  • Defendant's background (including home life, prior criminal history, etc.)
  • Peer pressure that existed at the time of the crime
  • If and how the defendant's age could have impacted his or her judgment at the time of the crime

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