How court's ruling on juveniles sentence to life affects Georgia is unclear

It's unclear how Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling will affect 31 Georgia prisoners who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

But legal experts agree that the decision — which declared mandatory life without parole sentences for minors unconstitutional — could foreshadow an eventual ban on sending young killers to prison with no hope of ever being free.

Monday's decision is the third in a series in which the high court has determined that criminals 17 and younger, whose brains are still developing, should be treated differently from their older counterparts.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the 5-4 majority, said trial judges considering a life without parole sentence for a teenager should have the option of weighing the convicted killer's "lack of maturity" that is often at the root of "recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking."

"Our decisions rested not only on common sense — on what 'any parent knows' — but on science and social science as well," Kagan wrote.

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Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the minority, said, "Determining the appropriate sentence for a teenager convicted of murder presents grave and challenging questions of morality and social policy. Our role, however, is to apply the law, not to answer such questions."

Of the 2,700 inmates in the United States serving life without the possibility of parole for murders committed as children, 31 are in Georgia. In almost all of those cases prosecutors were seeking death sentences. In 2009, Georgia law was changed so that prosecutors could ask for a life without parole sentence even if they weren't seeking a death sentence.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens' office and the state Board of Pardons and Paroles said they were reviewing the decision and those 31 cases to determine what — if anything — to do next.

"The impact in Georgia will depend on each individual case," said Olens spokeswoman Lauren Kane.

Stephen Bright, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said an assessment of Georgia's cases, even though the sentence was not mandatory, "would be the prudent thing to do." Monday's ruling addressed mandatory sentencing, which isn't how those a life without the possibility of parole sentence is handed down to juveniles in Georgia.

In this state, a sentence of life without the possibility of parole has been given to juvenile convicts, in most cases, as an alternative to death.

Take the case of Johnny Lee Gates, who was initially sentenced four decades ago to die for a rape and murder he committed when he was 16. An appellate court ordered Gates — now 56 — re-sentenced and it was then that a Muscogee County judge sentenced him to life without parole.

The youngest to be sentenced in Georgia to life without parole is Otis Daniel, who was 13 at sentencing. He is now 30.

One 15-year-old is now serving life without parole in Georgia for a murder committed when he was 14.

Monday's Supreme Court decision concerned murder convictions of two men — one from Alabama and the other Arkansas — who were both 14 when they committed their crimes.

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