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Tulane Law clinic works to clarify life without parole

September 06, 2013

Will more than 200 Louisiana prison inmates who were automatically sentenced to life without parole as juveniles get new sentencing hearings in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling?

Tulane Criminal Litigation Clinic students and Director Katherine Mattes have played a key role in informing how the Louisiana Supreme Court interprets a major shift in sentencing law.

In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prevents mandatory life-without-parole sentences for defendants who were younger than 18 when they were convicted of murder. Instead, each defendant must receive a hearing to determine whether the circumstances warrant such a harsh sentence.

The Louisiana Legislature subsequently passed a law, which took effect Aug. 1, allowing parole consideration for juveniles convicted of first-degree or second-degree murder.

The issue before the Louisiana Supreme Court is whether the new statute and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling apply to current inmates who were sentenced years ago. The question is being debated nationwide.

During the summer, the Louisiana Supreme Court appointed Mattes and the clinic to represent Darryl Tate, an indigent inmate seeking parole consideration under the changes in the law. Tate was 17 when he received an automatic sentence of life without possibility of parole for a robbery/homicide in Central City. He has served 31 years.

In the spring, clinic students representing two other clients argued in trial courts that the Supreme Court’s Miller ruling applies retroactively. In one of the cases the trial court granted a sentencing hearing, but the district attorney sought an appeal of the trial court’s ruling. That case, as well as others around the state, have been put on hold until the Louisiana Supreme Court decides Tate’s case.

Tulane clinic students worked on briefs for Tate’s appeal and took part in moot court practice arguments for Bryan Stevenson, who appeared with Mattes on behalf of Tate Sept. 4, before the Louisiana Supreme Court for oral argument. Stevenson, Director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, won Miller and a companion case, Jackson v. Hobbs, at the U.S. Supreme Court.

After the Louisiana Supreme Court argument, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson thanked the Tulane Criminal Litigation Clinic for accepting the appointment and representing Tate. A ruling could come during the fall.

 Clinic Photo 

Tulane Law Professor Katherine Mattes (fourth from left) and Equal Justice Initiative Director Bryan Stevenson (with blue tie), who argued a sentencing case before the Louisiana Supreme Court, are joined by Tulane Criminal Litigation Clinic students and other lawyers who worked the case.



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