Jones v. Mississippi: MC Law Graduate Argues Case Regarding Mandatory Juvenile Life Sentences Before Supreme Court

Written by: Megan Rogers-Hasie

Summary of the Case

In August of 2004, Brett Jones, Jr., then fifteen years old, was living with his grandparents, Madge and Bertis Jones. After an altercation over Bertis not approving of Brett’s girlfriend living in the family home, Brett stabbed his grandfather eight times, using two different knives. Brett’s then-girlfriend testified that Brett said he was going to “hurt his granddaddy” prior to the argument. Brett claimed self-defense, arguing that his grandfather had gotten in Brett’s face and hit Brett. A neighbor testified that he heard Bertis cry out in pain and saw Brett in the yard, covered in blood and carrying a knife. The neighbor said he heard Brett muttering “kill, kill.” Later, evidence suggested that Brett hid his grandfather’s body in a utility closet behind the carport, attempted to dispose of his bloody clothing, and covered up pools of blood in the carport.

Police arrested Brett and his girlfriend later that day, and they discovered a pocketknife in Brett’s possession. When questioned whether this was the knife he used to kill his grandfather, Brett answered “No, I already got rid of it.” The two knives used in the murder, along with bloody clothing, and blood splatters on the walls, were found in the family home. Brett, who was tried as an adult, was convicted of murder in the Circuit Court of Lee County and sentenced to life imprisonment. The jury did not find grounds for self-defense, but rather that Brett had deliberated the murder of Bertis Jones.

On appeal in September 2006, the Appellate Court of Mississippi affirmed the trial court’s verdict.  (Jones v. State, 938 So. 2d 312 (Miss. Ct. App. 2006)). In August 2011, the Appellate Court of Mississippi denied Jones’ claims that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment. (Jones v. State, 122 So. 3d 725 (Miss. Ct. App. 2011)). The Mississippi Supreme Court took up Jones’ appeal in July 2013 and remanded the case for resentencing in light of Miller v. Alabama which applied retroactively. (Jones v. State, 122 So. 3d 698 (Miss. 2013)). Miller interpreted the Eighth Amendment to forbid the imposition of mandatory life imprisonment without parole sentences for juveniles and the Supreme Court stated that before a juvenile convicted of homicide can be sentenced to life without parole, the sentencing court must consider the juvenile’s age and hallmarks of that age. (Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012)). Thus, Jones’ mandatory sentencing scheme was vacated, and his case remanded for resentencing to consider his age at the time of the murder. Even under the Miller analysis, Jones was still sentenced to life imprisonment without parole at his resentencing. Jones petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States for a writ of certiorari and oral arguments were heard on November 3, 2020. 

Oral Arguments

Representing the Petitioner-Defendant was David Shapiro of the MacArthur Justice Center and Northwestern Law Professor. His argument before the Court was that when it comes to juvenile offenders, only those who have committed homicide and then are found to be permanently incorrigible should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Shapiro stated that Mississippi courts have affirmatively misstated and misapplied the rule of Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana which require that a sentencing judge make a finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a juvenile offender to life in prison without the chance of parole. (Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016)). In his view, Brett Jones committed this murder just weeks after he turned fifteen and was denied any meaningful opportunity to prove he was not permanently incorrigible because the court wasn’t looking to make a finding of Brett’s capacity for rehabilitation. Evidence of Brett’s capacity for rehabilitation would include testimony from Brett’s grandmother, Madge Jones, the victim’s wife, and one of Brett’s correctional officers. In his expressive rebuttal, Shapiro emphasized that children who are not permanently incorrigible cannot be sentenced to life without parole. 

Representing the Respondent-State was Krissy Nobile, Mississippi’s Deputy Solicitor General and graduate of Mississippi College School of Law and Frederick Liu, Assistant to the United States Solicitor General. Their argument supported the Mississippi courts that sentenced Brett Jones and then affirmed that sentence. In their view, Brett Jones committed a brutal murder which was appropriately met with a life sentence. Although the ruling in Miller v. Alabama held that life imprisonment sentences for juveniles can be unconstitutional, the punishment is not grossly disproportionate if a life sentence is appropriate given the circumstances. Nobile’s stance was that Miller does not require a finding of permanent incorrigibility, but rather that permanent incorrigibility is a descriptive term used in the process of evaluating the circumstances in sentencing a defendant. Circumstances to be considered are the defendant’s age and immaturity, the surrounding circumstances, the mitigating circumstances, and the crime itself. If the defendant is given an individualized sentencing hearing where all these circumstances are considered, the holding of Miller is not in conflict, even if the juvenile defendant is sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. 

Questions Asked by the Justices

Each of the nine justices had questions for the Petitioner-Defendant Counsel, David Shapiro, including Justice Clarence Thomas who is rarely heard from during oral arguments, and Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the Court’s newest appointee. The justices’ questions revolved around what kind of finding satisfies the requirements of Miller and Montgomery and the Eighth Amendment, and whether this finding is procedural or substantive in nature. 

In response to these questions, Shapiro maintained that the finding of permanent incorrigibility can be either explicit or implicit. A finding of permanent incorrigibility considers what conduct amounts to transient immaturity or whether the defendant is going to commit more crimes or recidivate. The counselor stated there was not an explicit finding of permanent incorrigibility and the Court could not rely on an implicit finding here because the Mississippi Supreme Court instructed the trial judge, on remand, to consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and not the Miller factors and whether Brett Jones had any capacity for rehabilitation. Further, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller was not decided until after Brett Jones was first sentenced to prison so there could not have been an implicit incorrigibility finding. Shapiro argued the permanent incorrigibility finding is a substantive issue as laid out by Montgomery (and additionally, as a substantive issue, it is retroactive which is why it applies to Brett Jones). Shapiro argued that the trial or sentencing judge must first determine whether, substantively, the juvenile defendant is among the class of persons who can be subject to the punishment of life without parole before procedurally imposing the sentence.

Again, all nine justices had questions for Nobile and Liu, arguing for the Respondent. In questioning the government, the justices asked what kind of finding or hearing is necessary to satisfy Miller and Montgomery, and depending on the answer to that question, whether the Mississippi courts got the law right. Justice Sonia Sotomayor emphasized how rare the finding of permanent incorrigibility should be and Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked why the Court should not impose a rule requiring an explicit finding of permanent incorrigibility. 

In their answers, Nobile and Liu focused on how Mississippi uses individualized sentencing hearings to consider all the facts and mitigating circumstances, including the defendant’s youth, in reaching a sentence that is proportionate to the crime committed. After Miller, the focus is not on a finding of permanent incorrigibility but on reducing the grave risk of a disproportionate sentence, Respondent argued. Because the sentencing judge rejected transient immaturity for Brett Jones, the court correctly applied the law from Miller in sentencing Jones to life without parole. Nobile stated that simply trying to find permanent incorrigibility is illusory and not an objective fact. Under an “all circumstances considered” test that is required in Miller, Mississippi courts defeat the grave risk of a grossly disproportionate sentence. She argued that, although the offender’s age is paramount, the offender’s age must be anchored to the crime itself and not all crimes can be justified by a person’s age and characteristics of their age. The counselors argued that it is true that, under the Eighth Amendment, there is a group of persons for which life without parole is grossly disproportionate, but that group cannot be categorically defined by just their age and Miller doesn’t say that courts can categorize persons in such a way. 

An opinion will be delivered by June 2021.