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AUSTIN, Texas -- In the wake of this week's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to not review a juvenile justice case challenge filed this past December by the UT School of Law's Supreme Court Clinic, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs student team, which collaborated initially with the Clinic on the case, is continuing its work on policy related issues surrounding juvenile sentencing practices in an effort to encourage legislative reform.
The case, Pittman v. South Carolina (No. 07-8436), involved a 12-year-old child who was transferred to adult criminal court and given a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years without possibility of parole for killing his paternal grandparents. Under the leadership of LBJ School Professor, attorney and criminal justice policy expert Michele Deitch, the LBJ student team researched both legal arguments and national and international justice sentencing practices which informed the Clinc's legal challenge that Christopher Pittmanís sentence was cruel and unusual punishment for such a young child.
"Regardless of the outcome, this has been a great opportunity to see how
public policy research can have an influence on legal arguments. We watched
the Clinic use our research on juvenile justice practices in developing
their legal strategies. It was thrilling to see a chart we developed make
its way into a brief that was considered by the Supreme Court Justices!"
Ryan Reyna (2nd year LBJ School Student)
"The clinic was not only a great opportunity for us to work closely with the
law school, but it also afforded us the chance to effect policy change from
the bottom up. As a first year student who is passionate about criminal
justice reform in this country, I can't think of a better way to gain
first-hand experience at both the state and federal level. Although we are
all extremely disappointed that the Supreme Court has decided not to hear
our case, we are continuing to build awareness about the practice of trying
young kids as adults and hope to see policy changes in the near future."
Amanda Barstow (1st year LBJ School Student)
"Our collaboration with the law students seemed to be mutually beneficial. We could see how they were using our policy research to support their argument, and they provided us with great feedback as to why our research was important to the case. It is rewarding just to simply know that components of our research were included in the petition reviewed by Supreme Court Justices. This experience gave me exposure to a type of research I had no background in and likely wouldn't have ever pursued. I am grateful to have been a part of the team."
Leslie Lukens (2nd year LBJ School Student)
While the Supreme Court Clinic's involvement with Christopher Pittman's case is now complete, Deitch is currently working with her students on a policy report highlighting the results of their extensive national and international research on young children in adult court. "We hope that this report will encourage state policy-makers to reform those laws that permit the use of sentencing statutes designed for adults on young children who are transferred to the adult court system. Even better would be if legislatures determine that children under the age of 14 have no place in the adult criminal justice system."
Professor Michael Sturley, one of the Clinic faculty working on the case, said, "Of course we are disappointed that the Supreme Court did not accept the case for review, but it is important to remember that this was not a ruling on the merits. We still believe that the Supreme Courtís precedent in Roper v. Simmons, which prohibited the death penalty for juveniles, also supports a ruling in Chrisís favor."
Sturley noted that the Supreme Court does not provide reasons for its decisions whether to review a case. Speculating on the Courtís rationale, Sturley commented, "Perhaps the Court prefers to wait for a case in which a young child has been sentenced to life without parole."
Deitch, a professor at the UT School of Law as well as the LBJ School agreed. "The Court may also have recognized a growing national trend against sentencing young children to harsh mandatory terms in prison, and wants to give state legislatures the opportunity to correct this problem before it rules on the issue," Deitch added.
The Supreme Court Clinic faced astronomical odds when it asked the Supreme Court to take the case. The case was filed "in forma pauperis," meaning that Pittman cannot afford to pay for his legal representation, or even the Court's filing fee. Last year the Supreme Court accepted only seven of the more than 7,000 such petitions submitted for review.
"We knew the odds were stacked against us from the time we began work on the case. But participating in the Supreme Court Clinic has still been my best experience at UT," said Zach Beasley, one of the law students working with the Clinic. "I have learned how to translate my schooling into action, and have played a role in an exciting, high-profile case with real world consequences for our client," Beasley said.
Pittman's original legal team, which included Austin-based attorney Lanny Vickery, will continue to pursue legal remedies in the lower courts. "We feel that Chris had the best possible representation from the students and faculty of the Supreme Court Clinic. But Chris's legal options have not been exhausted, and we will continue to seek justice for him in this tragic case," said Vickery, a university law graduate.
New York Times - Justices Accept Question of Prosecutors as Lawyers or Managers - April 15, 2008
The New York Times - Justices Decline 'Zoloft Defense' Case - April 14, 2008
Bloomberg.com - Pre-Teen Killer Rejected by Top U.S. Court on 30-Year Sentence - April 14, 2008
CNN - Supreme Court turns down boy killer's appeal - April 14, 2008
Houston Chronicle - Supreme Court won't review boy's 30-year sentence - April 14, 2008