In a ruling Friday, the Montana Supreme Court vacated Steven Keefe’s life without parole sentences and remanded his case to the Eighth Judicial District Court for resentencing. Steven Keefe is represented by Phillips Black and ACLU of Montana.
“Today, the Montana Supreme Court recognized what many other courts already have – that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole is akin to a death sentence," said John Mills, Steven Keefe’s attorney and principal attorney at the Phillips Black Project. "By vacating the life without parole sentences, the Court gives Steven Keefe the opportunity to present evidence of his significant rehabilitation. As a result of this order, we expect that the Eighth Judicial District Court will provide Mr. Keefe with a sentence that gives him a hope for release. Mr. Keefe committed a serious crime in 1985 when he was 17 years old and was sentenced to die in prison. It was the height of nationwide concern about a wave of teenage super predators, unfounded fears that never came to pass in Montana or any other state. Mr. Keefe has used his three and a half decades in prison to reflect on the pain he caused and has expressed sincere remorse to spiritual advisors and mental health counselors. He has shown a strong work ethic and has continually received high marks from his supervisors, as the past and present wardens of the prison have attested. His Catholic faith and participation in programs for self-improvement have placed him on a path toward redemption and rehabilitation. He has done everything in his power to turn his life around.”
Over the past eight years, 22 states and Washington, D.C. have banned juvenile life without parole, with more than half of the country having completely abandoned the practice. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court banned juvenile life without parole in homicide cases in all but the rarest instances, where the juvenile showed absolutely no possibility of rehabilitation. (Miller v. Alabama) This ruling followed a line of cases based on the scientific understanding that children’s brains are not developed enough to appreciate the consequences of their actions and they have a unique capacity for reform and rehabilitation. Based on the brain science, the Court abolished juvenile life without parole for non-homicide offenses in 2009 (Graham v. Florida) and banned the death penalty for juveniles under 18 in 2005 (Roper v. Simmons). Court and legislative actions have moved in one direction: toward hope and a belief that children can change.
The specifics of Mr. Keefe's appeal concerned whether he should be allowed to present evidence of his rehabilitation over the last 34 years in light of the sea change on juvenile sentencing.
“Today the Montana Supreme Court overwhelmingly affirmed the principle that juveniles are fundamentally different from adults and as such are afforded greater constitutional protections." said Alex Rate, legal director for the ACLU of Montana. "Chief Justice McGrath’s powerful concurrence suggests that all life without parole sentences are ‘per se unconstitutional’ for juvenile offenders. That is in line with the evolving science around juvenile psychology, and should guide sentencing hearings for generations to come.”