PD-0038-21 & PD-0039-21 03/31/2021
1. “Are mandatory life-without-parole sentences cruel and unusual as applied to intellectually disabled offenders?”
2. “If the opinion below is affirmed, what are the available punishment options?”
Avalos pleaded guilty to two counts of capital murder and was sentenced to mandatory life without parole. On appeal, he challenged the constitutionality of imposing mandatory life without parole on the intellectually disabled, which he was later found to be. The court of appeals ultimately reversed in an en banc opinion. Its reasoning was straightforward: 1) The Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of intellectually disabled persons, Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321 (2002); 2) juveniles are sufficiently like intellectually disabled persons to render them categorically exempt from the death penalty, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 571 (2005); 3) because life without parole is the most serious punishment a juvenile can receive, it cannot be imposed without the same “individualized sentencing” hearing adults receive when the State seeks the death penalty, Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 489 (2012); 4) the same result is required for intellectual disability because of its parity with youth.
Three justices dissented. They pointed out that Miller was based on the idea that the inability to consider the youth of the juvenile offender prevented consideration of his most salient mitigation argument: lack of, and potential for, intellectual growth. This concern is inapplicable with the intellectually disabled.
In the Court of Criminal Appeals, the State re-urges its arguments touched upon by the dissent below. First, the court of appeals ignored the Supreme Court’s general rule that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit mandatory life without parole. See Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 995 (1991). The only deviation so far has been for juveniles, and the court of appeals should have restrained itself. Second, the primary rationale undergirding Miller is inapplicable to the intellectually disabled adult; there is no immaturity or, sadly, potential intellectual growth for a fact-finder to consider. Further, the argument that both death and life without parole are objectively worse for juveniles because of the amount of living they lose is not categorically true of the intellectually disabled, who could be of any age. Alternatively, if the court affirms, the State asks it to hold that the only potential punishments are life and life without possibility of parole.