ATLANTA — A federal appeals court on Wednesday held that juveniles convicted of murder can be sentenced to life in prison without parole, seeking to settle a lingering debate over how the courts punish minors who commit serious offenses.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death and that they also can't be sentenced to life in prison without parole for rape and other non-homicide offenses. The ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, though, upheld life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.
The decision came in the case against Kenneth Loggins, who was convicted in Alabama of killing a hitchhiker in 1994 and originally sentenced to die. He was 17 at the time of the killing, so his punishment was reduced to life without parole because the Supreme Court banned such executions in 2005.
His attorneys had urged the three-judge panel to broaden a 2010 Supreme Court by including murders as an offense that can't carry a life sentence. That 5-4 ruling held that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole if they haven't killed anyone, and ordered the courts to allow them a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release."
But prosecutors argued that the high court took pains to specify the ruling only applied in non-homicide cases, and the 11th Circuit said it found no reason to toss out Loggins' prison sentence.
The decision, written by Circuit Judge Ed Carnes, said "there's nothing in law or logic" to support the argument that a state shouldn't be allowed to impose the next most severe punishment if a death penalty sentence is banned.
The 11th Circuit has jurisdiction over federal cases in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, but lawyers in other areas will likely use the opinion to back up their own arguments.
Carnes had been the head of Alabama's capital punishment unit before he joined the court in 1992. He also wrote that the state shouldn't be blocked from imposing the prison sentence because it "lacked the clairvoyance to know that the Supreme Court would do an about-face and rule out death sentences for seventeen-year-old murderers."
In the decision, he said only a few jurisdictions have repealed laws permitting life without parole sentences for homicides committed by juveniles, and that the national consensus seems to be in favor of keeping those laws on the books.
"The long-term national trend is not away from life without parole sentences for homicides committed by juveniles but toward them," he said.
The ruling comes in a case involving the gruesome murder of Vickie Deblieux, who was picked up by Loggins and three other teens and taken to a secluded rural area as she was traveling to her mother's home in Louisiana.
One of the men hit Deblieux in the head with a beer bottle and then tackled her when she tried to run away, and all four savagely kicked her, the court said. When they realized she was still alive after the vicious beating, Loggins stood on her throat until she died, the ruling said.
Loggins and two others later mutilated the body by cutting off her fingers and thumbs and removing part of a lung. They were arrested after one of the teens was reported to have been showing one of the victim's severed fingers to friends.
The three others — who were 19, 17 and 16 at the time of the killing — were also convicted of the slaying and sentenced to either death or life in prison.