Texas Can't Give 17-Year-Old Murderers Mandatory Life Without Parole, Appeals Court Rules

It took more than a year and two special sessions to do it, but last July, the Texas legislature finally provided a constitutional option for punishing teen murderers.

In Texas, 17-year-olds are treated as adults for purposes of criminal law, which previously meant that those convicted of capital murder were eligible for one of two punishments: death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. But the Supreme Court ruled both punishments unconstitutional for suspects younger than 18 -- capital punishment in 2005, and mandatory life without parole in 2012 -- so the legislature said that 17-year-olds can only be sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.

That will come in handy when Jake Evans, the Aledo teen accused of killing his mother and sister, eventually goes to trial. But what of the 17 inmates the Associated Press reports are serving no-parole sentences for murders committed between 2005 and 2009, as well as those who have been convicted since?

See also: As Jake Evans Trial Looms, Texas Has No Way to Punish 17-Year-old Capital Murderers

Texas' highest criminal court gave its answer on Wednesday. Even for teens convicted before the Supreme Court's 2012 decision, a mandatory sentence of life without parole is unconstitutional.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' ruling came in the case of Terrell Maxwell, who was convicted of capital murder in Travis County in 2007.

According to the court's summary of the case, he and some friends were "smoking weed and watching movies" when they decided to rob someone. As they waited in a car at an Austin apartment complex, Maxwell announced that he would shoot their victim if he refused to give them money, which is what happened: he fatally shot a man they found sitting in a parked van, who responded to their demands for cash by putting up his hands in shock.

Because the Supreme Court had already taken the death penalty off the table, Maxwell was automatically sentenced to life without parole.

Logically, it would seem that the Supreme Court's ruling that a juvenile's mandatory life sentence in 2012 was unconstitutional would make all such sentences unconstitutional. But as the Texas court's narrow 5-4 split suggests, it's not quite that simple.

Ultimately, the majority writes, that decision is up to the Supreme Court. But "looking into the crystal ball, we think that the Supreme Court will hold that ...[this] is a "new substantive rule" that puts a juvenile's mandatory 'life without parole' sentence outside the ambit of the State's power."

To be clear, this doesn't mean that Maxwell and other juvenile offenders can't be sentenced to life without parole. That's still a possibility, "after consideration of applicant's individual conduct, circumstances, and character." It just can't be mandatory.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson