Supreme Court Rules Against Teen Murderer

April 22, 2021 Updated: April 22, 2021

The Supreme Court ruled 6–3 against Brett Jones, 31, a man convicted of committing murder when he was 15, rejecting his argument that the court should impose new restrictions on the power of states to sentence juveniles to life imprisonment without parole.

In its ruling, the high court determined that his sentence doesn’t violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Jones had argued that two Supreme Court decisions on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile defendants required the sentencing judge to explicitly find that rehabilitation was impossible in his case before imposing life without parole. The Supreme Court disagreed, determining the sentence was constitutional as long as the judge considered the defendant’s youth in sentencing him.

The decision came on April 22 in Jones v. Mississippi, court file 18-1259.

The high court split along conservative–liberal ideological lines.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a separate opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

The Jones case dates to 2004, when the then-juvenile defendant killed his paternal grandfather, Bertis Jones, 68, during an altercation about the teenager’s girlfriend at the time. He had come to stay with his grandparents in Mississippi two months before.

Court documents say Brett and Bertis argued after Brett’s girlfriend was found in his bedroom. Later that day, Brett “sassed” Bertis and the confrontation became physical. Brett stabbed Bertis repeatedly with kitchen knives, testifying he “was afraid” and “didn’t know anything else to do because [Bertis] was so huge.”

A Lee County, Mississippi, jury rejected the self-defense claim and convicted him. He was given life imprisonment without parole, as required by state law.

In 2015, a state court resentenced Jones to life in prison, which means he has to remain incarcerated until he’s 60 before he can be considered for conditional release. The ruling was prompted by a Supreme Court decision.

Jones asked for mercy.

“I’m not the same person I was when I was 15,” he said.

Circuit Court Judge Thomas Gardner wasn’t moved, describing the killing as “particularly brutal.”

“He was stabbed eight times, and Brett Jones had to resort to a second knife when the first knife broke.”

Since Jones committed the crime, the case law on juveniles receiving life sentences without parole has evolved. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that executing individuals who were under 18 when they committed their crimes violated the Eighth Amendment.

Two subsequent Supreme Court precedents, Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), fleshed out jurisprudence on the issue.

In Miller v. Alabama, the court held that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”

After that ruling, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated Jones’s sentence. At a new sentencing hearing, a state court heard evidence that Jones had an abusive childhood and rehabilitated himself in prison, but still determined he wasn’t eligible for parole.

Then, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Miller ruling “announced a substantive rule of constitutional law” that must be given “retroactive effect.”

Jones went back to court in hopes that the new Supreme Court ruling would work in his favor, but he lost.

In the new majority opinion, Kavanaugh rejected the argument advanced by Jones and by Sotomayor in her dissent that the Miller and Montgomery rulings taken together created “an additional constitutional requirement that the sentencer must make a finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a murderer under 18 to life without parole.”

In those rulings, the Supreme Court “unequivocally stated that such a finding is not required,” Kavanaugh wrote. “And we will not now rewrite those decisions to impose a requirement that the Court twice rejected.”

This court opinion “should not be construed as agreement or disagreement with the sentence imposed against Jones,” he wrote, noting the defendant was free to continue seeking relief from the state.

“Determining the proper sentence in such a case raises profound questions of morality and social policy. The States, not the federal courts, make those broad moral and policy judgments in the first instance when enacting their sentencing laws. And state sentencing judges and juries then determine the proper sentence in individual cases in light of the facts and circumstances of the offense, and the background of the offender.”

In her dissent, Sotomayor wrote that the high court “guts” the Miller and Montgomery rulings.

Referencing the Miller decision, she wrote that “A sentencer must actually ‘make the judgment’ that the juvenile in question is one of those rare children for whom [life without parole] is a constitutionally permissible sentence.”