A unanimous Louisiana Supreme Court ruled this week that a 99-year sentence without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional for juvenile offenders — eliminating what the court described as "a perverse incentive to kill one's victims."
The 7-0 decision means that Alden Morgan, who is serving the maximum for an armed robbery committed in New Orleans' Garden District in 1998, when he was 17, will become eligible for parole in about 12 years. Morgan is now 35.
It also could affect parole eligibility for other inmates who were handed what the court described as "the functional equivalent" of a life sentence for crimes committed when they were juveniles.
The court did not further define how many years it believes equate to a life sentence.
Ken Pastorick, a state corrections spokesman, said Friday that 29 inmates are currently serving non-life sentences of 60 years or more for crimes committed as juveniles.
Wednesday's ruling came six weeks after a hearing in which several of the high court's justices expressed dismay at the attempt by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office to defend Morgan's sentence, in light of a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have set juveniles apart when it comes to the stiffest criminal punishments.
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Under those rulings, juveniles can't be sentenced to life without parole for any crimes except homicide, and only juvenile killers who exhibit "irretrievable depravity" can be denied future parole eligibility.
Those decisions left the justices weighing a troubling result of the rulings: that most juvenile killers would have a shot at release, whereas Morgan, who injured no one, would almost surely die in prison.
"Our holding today, which finds a 99-year sentence to be the functional equivalent of life, resolves any such paradox in favor of common sense and morality," Justice Marcus Clark wrote for the court.
Roughly 300 people in Louisiana prisons were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles.
Morgan, who was arrested shortly after the robbery of a couple in the 1100 block of Second Street, confessed, saying he had approached the couple as they were putting their baby in their car and demanded their keys. Then "the gun went off, 'Pow!' " as he reached down for the man's wallet on the ground, he told police.
Following his conviction, Criminal District Court Judge Julian Parker, who is now retired, handed him the maximum. Parker found that "it was Morgan's intent to kill either this child or (the father)" and that he showed no remorse.
All of Morgan's appeals, including a petition for federal habeas corpus relief, were rejected. But he filed a new challenge from prison based on the recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, including a retroactive ban on mandatory life sentences for juveniles.
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In a concurring opinion on Wednesday, Justice Scott Crichton blasted Cannizzaro for taking "the stunning position" that Morgan, with a release date at age 101, doesn't qualify as a lifer.
"Even worse, the district attorney has invited this state's high court to join him in this constitutionally untenable position that directly conflicts with a line of United States Supreme Court cases rolling back excessive punishment of juvenile offenders," Crichton wrote.
He suggested that Cannizzaro, in defending Morgan's sentence, was violating his oath of office.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro's office did not respond to a request for comment.
The court ordered state corrections officials to designate a parole date for Morgan, noting that "we are not ordering the defendant's immediate release, nor are we guaranteeing his eventual release."