71 Am. U. L. Rev. 2061 (2022).
Donnell Wilson was only sixteen years old when he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (JLWOP). Wilson appealed his life sentence, claiming that his defense counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present mitigation evidence pertaining to his youth and background when he was facing the possibility of a life sentence. While the state appellate court agreed, the state supreme court did not. The court in Wilson’s case concluded that the standards for presentation of mitigation evidence at sentencing as laid out by the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Standards for the Defense Function (“ABA Defense Standards”) do not apply to anything other than capital proceedings, but such a conclusion is contrary to everything the Supreme Court has said in recent JLWOP decisions, from Roper v. Simmons in 2005 to Jones v. Mississippi in 2021. The premise is simple: “youth matters in sentencing.”
There is no standard to assist state courts in determining exactly how much mitigation evidence defense counsel is required to present at sentencing when representing a juvenile offender who faces a potential sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. While the Supreme Court has pointed to the ABA Defense Standards as courts’ search image for what is required of counsel in capital sentencing proceedings, and repeatedly compared the severity of capital sentences to that of life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders, the Court has not yet explicitly said that the same standards for mitigation in capital proceedings must be imported to the JLWOP context. This Comment argues that the same standards for investigation into and presentation of mitigation evidence at sentencing in capital proceedings must govern JLWOP proceedings. This is the only option that comports with the requirements of the Sixth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Such an adoption would eliminate existing confusion and inconsistencies among state courts and set a standard for counsel to follow in JLWOP sentencing proceedings nationwide. Standardization would provide for a consistent framework for evaluating defense counsel’s effectiveness. Adopting such a standard would also open the door to the possibility of claims of abuse of discretion in cases where defense counsel did present the level of mitigation evidence required of them and the sentencing authority then chose to constructively ignore it. Most importantly, the adoption of such a standard is the only way that courts can ensure that youth does matter in sentencing.
* Note & Comment Editor, American University Law Review, Volume 72; J.D. Candidate, May 2023, American University Washington College of Law; B.A., Political Science, May 2020, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Thank you to my colleagues on the Law Review for their scrupulous work on this piece, especially Aisha Green, Emily King, and Sarah Frances Shor. A special thank you to my final editor, mentor, and friend, Bethany Callahan, for being there every step of the way. Thank you to my advisor, Patricia Puritz, without whose contributions and wisdom this Comment would not have been possible, and without whose encouragement I would never have been able to see this through. Thank you to the courageous kids serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, some of whom I had the privilege of working with and getting to know throughout my law school career and who inspired this Comment. Your unflappable optimism for a more just future for juvenile offenders is an inspiration to us all. Finally, thank you to my family for their support that has been beyond compare. Everything I do, I do to make you proud.