A man sentenced to life in prison without parole when he was 14 years old could end up serving a much shorter prison term after Arkansas' highest court ruled Thursday that he deserves a new sentencing hearing.
The state Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Kuntrell Jackson, whose case was one of two that led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year throwing out mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles.
"We agree with the State's concession that Jackson is entitled to the benefit of the (U.S.) Supreme Court's opinion in his own case," Justice Josephine Linker Hart wrote in the Arkansas Supreme Court's unanimous decision.
It's not clear when Jackson's new hearing will be held, but when it is, the justices said he may present evidence about his age and the nature of the crime.
Arkansas' high court also said Jackson's sentence has to fall within a range of 10 to 40 years or life.
Jackson has been in the state prison since 2003 and has more than two years of jail-time credit, prisons spokeswoman Shea Wilson said. But that doesn't necessarily mean he will be released from prison soon.
"My hunch is that there won't be an immediate release," said Bryan Stevenson, one of Jackson's attorneys. "Obviously we think there are some very compelling and mitigating circumstances that warrant a reduced sentence, but ... at this point, we don't know what the court's going to sentence, so I don't want to suggest that he's coming home tomorrow."
Jackson was sentenced to life in prison without parole after the shooting death of a store clerk during an attempted robbery in 1999. Another boy shot the clerk, but Jackson was present, and so he was convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery.
Jackson is now 27 years old and is serving his sentence at a maximum-security prison in Arkansas. He will stay there until the Department of Correction receives instructions from the court saying otherwise, Wilson said.
The state Supreme Court also chipped away at the capital murder law when applied to juveniles in Jackson's case. In another opinion handed down Thursday, Justice Cliff Hoofman wrote that "there is currently no authorized sentence for a juvenile convicted of capital murder under Arkansas law...."
In that case, the state Supreme Court said Lemuel Whiteside, another young man sentenced to life in prison without parole, deserves a new sentencing hearing. Whiteside was convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery in connection with a 2009 robbery and death. He was 17 at the time of the crime.
"I think there may be remaining questions that are yet to be resolved, but generally we think that what the court has ordered is consistent with the (U.S.) Supreme Court's decision," said Stevenson, a Montgomery-Ala.-based lawyer.
Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision, the court had already ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death.
Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel respects the state Supreme Court's decisions and wasn't surprised by them, spokesman Aaron Sadler said.
The U.S. Supreme Court's June decision came in the robbery and murder cases of Jackson and Evan Miller, who also was 14 when he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.
Miller was convicted in Alabama of capital murder during the course of arson. A neighbor, while doing drugs and drinking with Miller and a 16-year-old boy, attacked Miller. Intoxicated, Miller and his friend beat the 52-year-old man and set fire to his home, killing him.
Using Jackson's case, Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor said in a separate opinion that they would have gone even further than just getting rid of laws requiring mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles like Jackson.
"There is no basis for imposing a sentence of life without parole upon a juvenile who did not himself kill or intend to kill," Breyer said in a separate opinion last year.
Stevenson said Jackson's lawyers are pleased that the state Supreme Court decided to send his case back to a lower court for resentencing.
"That's been our hope all along that a more appropriate and just sentence could be imposed than the mandatory life sentence that he received initially," Stevenson said.
Associated Press writer Chuck Bartels contributed to this report.
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