Amidst the drama that is the 2016 Presidential Election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I scanned my television late on Saturday night and then came the documentary “15 to Life” which despite exhaustion keep me tuned in. The story of Kenneth Young is a tragic one and one that I felt compelled to write about and hopefully contribute lead to pulling a blindfold off of Lady Justice.
At the age of 14-15, Kenneth Young was involved in 4 different armed robberies. He did this with a 24-year old accomplice leading the way. The 24-year old was the drug dealer of Kenneth’s mother and forced him into a life of crime. While the mother was often intoxicated and leaving her son alone to his own devices from the age of 11 along with his 15-year old sister that had become pregnant, the accomplice, in addition to selling drugs to Kenneth’s mother started forcing the young man to play a role in the crimes. He was an unwilling accomplice and his public defender never focused on that fact nor did she ever mention how Kenneth actually prevented one victim from being raped by the 24-year old accomplice. The reality: Kenneth Young was born into a life of criminal dysfunction and was an unwilling participant. Despite this, the state of Florida sentenced him to 3 concurrent life sentences. Finally, there was home when the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in the classic case of Graham vs. Florida.
In Graham vs. Florida, the United States Supreme Court stated that the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution which can afford an argument that sentences can be cruel and unusual punishment can come into play. In essence, the court ruled that if a defendant has been rehabilitated and they were a minor when a non-homicide occurred, the case can be re-examined.1 In a majority opinion, Justice Kennedy stated, The Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. A State need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes a sentence of life it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term. The judgment of the First District Court of Appeal of Florida is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. The court echoed this opinion in the case Miller vs. Alabama.2 Where does this leave us and as attorneys’, criminal and otherwise within the state of Michigan, we have to employ psychology with this analysis. Should a teenager be judged the same way as an adult?
When we look at the case of Kenneth Young, it is amazing how the court could not provide a second look? The entire point of the prison system is rehabilitation and how the state could not make amends for bad-lawyering and extenuating circumstances is amazing. If a child commits a crime that did not result in the death of another, should they not be given a chance to restore their life?
From a criminal aspect, the entire point of the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution is to protect from cruel and unusual punishment. How can we look at ourselves in the mirror and state that this was not unusual and cruel?
1560 US 48 (2010)
2132 S. Ct. 2455, 567 U.S., 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012).
Bill Amadeo is a partner at the law firm McManus PLLC in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He also owns Bat Tutoring which is a company that trains students for their law school classes and the bar exam. During law school, Bill worked as a professional journalist.