Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Supreme Court Decision on Juvenile Sentencing Results in Cruel and Unusual Difficulties for Missouri

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Supreme Court Decision on Juvenile Sentencing Results in Cruel and Unusual Difficulties for Missouri

Article excerpt


Many Americans are familiar with the phrase "cruel and unusual punishment" as it is used in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But far fewer are acquainted with the history behind these words and the difficulty the Supreme Court of the United States has had in giving definition to this broad phrase. Since the ratification of this amendment in 1791, the Court has drawn and re-drawn the boundaries of what constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" forbidden by the Constitution, tending to exhibit an increasing sense of decency in the punishments it allows for certain crimes. Most recently, the Court continued this trend by holding in Miller v. Alabama that a juvenile cannot be sentenced to life without parole ("LWOP") until the sentencer considers certain mitigating factors, such as the youthful characteristics of the offender. (1)

While the Court's progress can be seen as a beneficial furtherance of civility in an increasingly advanced society, this constant change in the law creates havoc for the states as they struggle to amend their statutes to comply with the Court's most recent decision. After Miller, for example, twenty-nine states saw their mandatory sentencing statutes invalidated, requiring immediate, complicated revisions of their criminal codes. (2) In Missouri, this struggle began when the Supreme Court of Missouri decided State v. Hart, a case applying the Miller decision to state law. (3) As a result of this decision and the resulting invalidation of state law, Missouri's criminal justice system faces several problems that must be dealt with immediately. (4) To comply with the Supreme Court's most recent Eighth Amendment decision and to resolve these complications, it is vital that the Missouri Legislature revise its criminal code in several ways. This Note discusses those problems and provides guidance to lawmakers as they attempt to adjust to the current state of the law.

Part II gives a brief background of the facts and circumstances surrounding the Hart decision. Part III discusses the history of the Eighth Amendment and explores the U.S. Supreme Court's trend toward leniency in the imposition of punishments, culminating with a discussion of the Miller decision. Part IV delves into the Supreme Court of Missouri's reasoning behind its decision in Hart and the temporary sentencing procedures the court provided. Finally, Part V comments on the many problems currently facing Missouri's criminal justice system since the implementation of the Miller decision and the actions that will be required by the legislature in revising the state's criminal code in order to remedy these problems.


On the evening of January 24, 2010, seventeen-year-old Laron Hart participated in two separate armed robberies in St. Louis, Missouri. (5) Hart first approached Ms. Hellrich while she was entering her car, demanding her purse and brandishing a handgun to convince her to hand it over. (6) While Hart ran to his stolen blue Oldsmobile Cutlass to leave the scene, Hellrich quickly called the police. (7) Shortly after this robbery and a short distance away, Hart jumped from his Cutlass and approached Mr. Sindelar from behind. (8) Upon grabbing the man's backpack, Sindelar began to struggle and call for help, whereupon Hart pulled out his gun and fired a single, fatal shot into Sindelar's chest. (9) Hart returned to his car and drove away, leaving Sindelar to die. (10)

The next morning, St. Louis police stopped the blue Cutlass following a lengthy chase through rush-hour traffic. (11) Although Hart was not one of the occupants of the car, Hellrich's belongings were found inside. (12) Based on the descriptions given by Hellrich and a witness to Sindelar's murder, police soon arrested Hart, who was subsequently identified by Hellrich and the eyewitness in a police lineup. (13) During a videotaped interrogation, Hart initially denied any involvement in the robberies. …

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