Eighth Amendment: Graham v. Florida LITIGATION/CONTROVERSY

WilmerHale filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association and other mental health organizations in Graham v. Florida. The case addressed whether it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile offender to life without parole for a non-homicide offense. In May 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that such sentences violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court’s decision was especially gratifying because it built upon the legal reasoning of another firm victory, the 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, in which the Court ruled that the death penalty for juveniles is unconstitutional.

The amicus brief submitted by the firm, which was cited in the Court’s majority opinion, argued that the Court’s reasoning in Simmons applied in Graham as well. Specifically, the brief presented recent research in developmental psychology and neuroscience supporting the conclusion that juvenile offenders are less deserving of retribution, less susceptible to deterrence, and more likely to reform. Although a life sentence without possibility of parole is not as severe as a death sentence, the brief argued, it is nonetheless a final sentence that affords no opportunity to demonstrate a reformed moral character, and as applied to juveniles is therefore cruel and unusual.

The WilmerHale team consisted of Danielle Spinelli, Anne Harkavy and Shirley Woodward.

Supreme Court Opinion

Amicus Brief in Support of Petitioners (filed by WilmerHale)

WilmerHale filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association and other mental health organizations in Graham v. Florida. The case addressed whether it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile offender to life without parole for a non-homicide offense. In May 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that such sentences violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court’s decision was especially gratifying because it built upon the legal reasoning of another firm victory, the 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, in which the Court ruled that the death penalty for juveniles is unconstitutional.

The amicus brief submitted by the firm, which was cited in the Court’s majority opinion, argued that the Court’s reasoning in Simmons applied in Graham as well. Specifically, the brief presented recent research in developmental psychology and neuroscience supporting the conclusion that juvenile offenders are less deserving of retribution, less susceptible to deterrence, and more likely to reform. Although a life sentence without possibility of parole is not as severe as a death sentence, the brief argued, it is nonetheless a final sentence that affords no opportunity to demonstrate a reformed moral character, and as applied to juveniles is therefore cruel and unusual.

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