The Minnesota Supreme Court is considering, once again, whether it's the right time to give a juvenile murderer a chance to fight his mandatory life sentence without parole.
On Tuesday, the justices heard the case of Mahdi Ali, who was 16 when he killed three men during a robbery at Minneapolis' Seward Market in 2010. Under state law, his premeditated-murder conviction called for a life sentence without parole, even for juveniles certified to stand trial as an adult.
In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller vs. Alabama, a case involving a 14-year-old boy, that sentencing juveniles to spend life in prison without considering factors like their youth, motive and potential for rehabilitation violated the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling didn't ban life without parole for juveniles, but it said judges must consider mitigating circumstances before imposing such a harsh penalty.
Minnesota had eight juvenile killers in prison for life without parole before the high court declared it unconstitutional. Since May 2013, the state Supreme Court has ruled on two of those cases, rejecting arguments for changing sentences.
During Tuesday's hearing, the justices spent much of the time questioning attorneys about the logistics and legal guidelines they would have to develop if they remanded Ali's case to Hennepin County District Court to consider changing his life-without-parole sentence to one of at least 30 years with parole. They also debated if these juvenile cases call for action by the Legislature to change life-without-parole statutes.
Ali received two consecutive life sentences and a consecutive life-without-parole sentence. The two life sentences, served back to back, would keep him in prison for a minimum of 60 years, said assistant state public defender Lydia Villalva Lijo. She argued that the life-without-parole sentence was unconstitutional and that entire sentence should be reserved in light of Miller vs. Alabama.
"This case has changed the landscape of sentencing," she said.
In recent months, state Supreme Courts in Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts and Texas have ruled that inmates serving life for juvenile crimes should receive new sentencing hearings.
Villalva Lijo suggested the Legislature needs to change the state's life-sentence law, which was amended in 2005 to require that several serious crimes receive a mandatory "no parole" punishment. She said she'd like to see the law return to allowing parole eligibility after 30 years on a life sentence.
"But the court is now confronted with a very difficult situation because the state law is now unconstitutional," she said. "Right now, a life sentence without parole is still mandated, and the district courts have no discretion for a different sentence."
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea reminded her that Miller vs. Alabama doesn't prohibit a district judge from imposing a life sentence without parole.
Justice David Stras said the court is in an ambiguous situation because "Miller is out there and we aren't sure of the Legislature's intentions" regarding the life without parole law.
The crimes involved in the two other juvenile cases appealed to the state Supreme Court happened long before the Miller decision; in both cases, life sentences prevailed. In 1996, 17-year-old Timothy Chambers stole a car and led police on a high-speed chase that ended when he slammed into a squad car, killing a Rice County sheriff's deputy. In 2000, 17-year-old Tony Roman Nose raped and stabbed a teen to death.