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Law School Clinic Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Major Juvenile Justice Case

The Supreme Court Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law filed Monday (Dec. 17) a certiorari petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to review the sentence of a South Carolina prisoner, Chris Pittman, who is serving a 30-year term without parole for an offense he committed when he was 12 years old.

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The Supreme Court Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law filed Monday (Dec. 17) a certiorari petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to review the sentence of a South Carolina prisoner, Chris Pittman, who is serving a 30-year term without parole for an offense he committed when he was 12 years old.

No other inmate in the country is serving so severe a sentence for an offense committed at such a young age.

The cert petition asks the Supreme Court to address for the first time whether its reasoning in the 2005 Roper v. Simmons decision, which prohibited the death penalty for minors, also protects 12-year-old children who receive lengthy mandatory sentences without possibility of parole.

Professors and students of the Supreme Court Clinic

(Left to right) Professor Lynn Blais, School of Law; Earl Landers (Lanny) Vickery, Austin attorney; Leslie Lukens, second-year student, LBJ School of Public Affairs; Professor Michael Sturley (standing), School of Law; Zach Beasley, third-year student, School of Law; Professor Michele Deitch, LBJ School of Public Affairs and School of Law; Adam Gray, third-year student, School of Law.Downloadable, high-resolution photos of this image and more are available online.
Photo: Marsha Miller

The Clinic argues that Pittman’s sentence of 30 years without the possibility of parole is constitutionally excessive because the Simmons case said that “children are different” when it comes to sentencing. The Clinic is asking the Supreme Court to consider whether it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to impose such a severe sentence on a 12-year-old child, especially when the sentencing judge had no opportunity to take Pittman’s youth into account as a mitigating factor.

In 2005, Pittman was convicted of murdering his paternal grandparents, with whom he lived. He had no prior juvenile record, though he had a sad history that included being abandoned by his mother. Shortly before his offense, Pittman was prescribed and began taking an adult dose of anti-depressants, to which he had a bad reaction. Such medications are often tied to violent outbursts. Despite these factors, the juvenile judge transferred Pittman to adult criminal court where he faced the tough mandatory sentences intended for adults. He received the shortest sentence possible in South Carolina for murder-30 years without the possibility of parole.

Law School Professor Michael Sturley, who directs the Supreme Court Clinic, called the case “high impact,” and said that this case is a “perfect vehicle for the Supreme Court to recognize evolving standards of decency with regard to young children and to show that the Simmons case is not limited to the death penalty context.” He also noted that “we don’t treat 12-year-olds as adults for any other purpose-they can’t vote, they can’t drive, they can’t even rent a movie at Blockbuster.”

Law School Professor Lynn Blais, who worked with Sturley to supervise students’ work and to draft the petition, added, “The reasons justifying the Supreme Court’s rejection of the death penalty for children also call into question the imposition of harsh non-capital sentences on youthful offenders.

Supreme Court Clinic Files
Certiorari Petition with U.S. Supreme Court

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“Twelve-year-olds are developmentally different from adults, and their brains are still growing. We need to recognize that they are therefore less culpable than adults for their behavior, and that they are more amenable to treatment and rehabilitation. Of course they should be held accountable for their offenses, but they shouldn’t be treated like adults for purposes of sentencing.”

In working on this cert petition, the Supreme Court Clinic teamed with faculty and students at The University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs because of the important policy implications of this case. The group researched both legal arguments and national and international juvenile justice sentencing practices.

They found that what happened to Pittman could not have happened in 41 states, or, for that matter, in most other countries in the world. More than half the states prohibit transferring 12-year-olds to adult criminal court, and most of the rest either allow for some consideration of the diminished culpability of young children or would not impose such a long mandatory minimum sentence. Of those states where such long sentences for 12-year-olds are theoretically possible, no other state has sentenced a child as harshly as South Carolina did in Pittman’s case.

Christopher Pittman and grandfather Joe Pittman circa 2001

Christopher Pittman and grandfather Joe Pittman circa 2001.
Source: Family photo

“These national practices are evidence that there is a societal consensus against extreme sentencing when it comes to young children who commit serious crimes,” said Michele Deitch, an attorney and criminal justice policy expert who teaches at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs as well as at the Law School and who worked with her policy students on the cert petition. “Sadly, there are quite a few young murderers. But the vast majority of them remain in juvenile court where judges have options for ensuring that they get the treatment and programming they need while protecting public safety at the same time.

“Although there was a move in the mid-1990s to toughen up responses to juvenile crime, that trend seems to be reversing as policy-makers find that treating juveniles as adults is counter-productive.”A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control, for example, analyzed the available scientific research and found that transferring juveniles to adult court increases violence and recidivism.Law Professor Jordan Steiker, an expert on the Eighth Amendment and sentencing issues, and co-director of the Law School’s Capital Punishment Center, also consulted on the petition.Lanny Vickery, an Austin-based attorney and 1984 Law School graduate who helped handle Pittman’s case in the South Carolina courts, brought the case to the Clinic and requested assistance in petitioning the High Court.”This is an important case and we knew Chris would benefit from getting some of the top experts in the country working on it,” he said. Vickery worked closely with the professors and students as they prepared their arguments.The Supreme Court is expected to decide in March whether to hear the case.

The formal collaboration between the Law School Supreme Court Clinic and a team of public policy students is believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

“We simply could not have presented as strong a case without the policy research that was done by the LBJ students,” Sturley said. “Their national and international research helped shape our legal arguments and helped us to understand how juvenile justice sentencing practices actually work.”

Deitch described the collaboration as “enormously successful.” She said, “The policy students learned a tremendous amount about the legal process and came to understand how to make their policy research legally relevant.”

“UT Law and public policy students have shown that they are able to make serious contributions in the most sophisticated litigation in any court in the country,” said Larry Sager, dean of the School of Law.

Note to editors: Downloadable, high-resolution photos relating to the Pittman case are available on the Office of Public Affairs News Media Center Web site. The certiorari petition can be viewed and downloaded from the same Web site.