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14 years old: Too young for life in prison?

Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson are lifers, condemned at 14 to spend their lives in prison without the possibility of parole for their involvement in separate murders. Their backers say their sentences are cruel and unusual, leaving them without the second chance the young are so often given. They hope the U.S. Supreme Court agrees.

Next Tuesday, the court will hear arguments in their cases and its ruling could have far-reaching effects. More than 2,200 people nationwide have been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles -- defined as 17 or younger -- according to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., a civil rights group that represents Miller and Jackson.

The group hopes the companion cases will be another victory for juvenile criminals, who have found some relief before the Supreme Court over the past seven years. In 2005, the court abolished executions for juvenile offenders. Then, two years ago, the court ruled that it is unconstitutional to impose life sentences on juveniles convicted of crimes that do not involve homicide.

NBC's Pete Williams talks about the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lawyers for Miller, now 23, and Jackson, now 26, contend that juveniles are works in progress and will argue that forensic evidence shows adolescent brains are not fully developed. “Condemning an immature, vulnerable, and not-yet-fully-formed adolescent to life in prison – no matter the crime – is constitutionally a disproportionate punishment,” they say in their petition to the court. The Equal Justice Initiative declined to discuss the case because of the pending hearing.

Kim Taylor-Thompson, a professor of clinical law at the New York University School of Law, has studied juvenile offenders for nearly a decade and agrees with the group. "No one is excusing the fact of what happened," she said. "What we are saying is: Did these two young men engage in thought processes that would make us say today they're the type of individuals who can never be rehabilitated, never change and be locked up to never see the light of day?

Clyde Stancil / The Decatur Daily

Colby Smith, 18, left, and Evan Miller, 17, were convicted of killing Miller's neighbor.

“We believe that they deserve a second look.”

Supporters of life without parole for juveniles say judges should be allowed to give certain criminals, regardless of their age, harsh sentences when their crimes are egregious.

Thomas R. McCarthy, who filed a brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, said sentences such as those handed to Miller and Jackson are "relatively rare and imposed only on teenagers who commit extremely heinous murders." 

There have been a dozen friend-of-the-court briefs filed in support of Miller and Jackson, and as many filed against them.

Miller was a troubled teen living in a trailer park in Alabama in 2003 when he and a 16-year-old friend, Colby Smith, fought with a drunken neighbor and bludgeoned 52-year-old Cole Cannon with a baseball bat. They set his home on fire, leaving the man to die in the blaze. 


Kuntrell Jackson was convicted of taking part in a murder during the robbery of a video store. Another youth shot the clerk.

Cannon's daughter, Candy Cheatham, said she is convinced Miller is still a ruthless killer. She said she has a seat reserved at Tuesday's hearing.

"My father had nine broken ribs and blunt-force trauma to his head," Cheatham told msnbc.com. "We could not have an open casket at his funeral because of the condition of his body -- it was charred."

"Evan Miller knew what he was doing,” she said. “He had no remorse and he has no remorse until this day. There is no indication that I have seen a change in the man that killed my father. He deserves to be locked away until his last day."

The Equal Justice Initiative declined to make Miller and Jackson available for interviews ahead of the court hearing.

Jackson was walking through a housing project in Arkansas with two older boys in 1999 when they started talking about holding up a video store. When they arrived at the store, the other boys went in, but Jackson stayed outside by the door, his lawyers said. One of the older boys fatally shot the clerk before all three fled. Prosecutors said Jackson knew one of the other boys had a shotgun, and that Jackson was inside the shop at the time of the shooting, telling the clerk: "We ain't playin'."

Here are the stories of other lifers who believe they deserve a second chance:

Courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative

Quantel Lotts, age unknown at the time this photo was taken.

Quantel Lotts, Missouri
He stabbed his 17-year-old stepbrother in a scuffle in St. Louis in November 1999. Lotts, now 26, told The New York Times he wasn’t reconciled to his life term. “I understand that I deserve some punishment,” Lotts told the Times in a 2011 interview. “But to be put here for the rest of my life with no chance, I don’t think that’s a fair sentence.”

Ashley Jones, Alabama
She was 14 when she helped her boyfriend kill her grandfather and aunt in Birmingham by stabbing and shooting them and then setting them ablaze. Jones also tried to kill her sister, 10, prosecutors said. The Equal Justice Initiative says the now 22-year-old has turned her life around and is deserving of a chance at freedom.
T.J. Tremble, Michigan
Tremble, then 14, rode his bike to an elderly couple's home in Au Gres, Mich., in 1997, shot the two in the head as they slept and stole their car. In an interview in 2005 with a reporter for the  Bay City (Mich.) Times, Tremble, now 29, said he deserved redemption.

"The whole problem is that people don't think we can change, that we can't be rehabbed. For lifers, they don't offer us anything. Absolutely nothing," said Tremble, an inmate at the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Freeland, Mich.

Asked whether he deserved a shot at parole, Tremble said: "I'm not the same person now that I was when I got to prison. I've matured. I do feel I could make a difference out there. The only thing is, I've got to get that chance."

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