Vice provost plays large part in Supreme Court case

Jacob Geanous

As recent Netflix hit “Making a Murderer” is making headlines, Suffolk University Vice Provost and Law Professor Jeff Pokorak is making headway in court.

“Making a Murderer” chronicles Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey’s 2007 convictions and subsequent life sentencings for the murder of Teresa Halbach. Dassey, who was 16 when convicted, will be eligible for parole in 2048.

The United States Supreme Court has been amending the way they sentence juvenile offenders like Dassey, culminating in a recent victory this week.

Pokorak began his work by trying to mitigate excessively harsh court rulings for minors and the mentally disabled.

“I was involved in the work against executing people with mental retardation,” said Pokorak in an interview with the Journal.

“I’d say I’m infamous because I probably represented the last person who suffered from mental retardation who was executed,” he said.

Capital punishment of the mentally impaired was ruled unconstitutional in 2002.

“After that, the juvenile community got together with the death penalty community to begin working on the end of execution of juveniles,” said Pokorak. “Back then, the standard was you could execute people who were 16 or older.”

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that imposing capital punishment on minors is unconstitutional.

“This is how cases build,” he said. “Back when I was starting law, there was a huge movement to treat more and more juveniles as adults.”

In 2012, the Supreme Court heard the case of Miller v. Alabama, the next step in the fight for the rights of convicted juveniles. It’s focus was Evan Miller, found guilty of murdering Cole Cannon in 2004 and receiving a life sentence with no opportunity for parole. Pokorak wrote pertinent legal briefs for Miller’s 2012 appeal alongside Marsha Levick, the chief litigator of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

“It was called into question whether it was constitutional for juveniles to receive mandatory life without parole sentences for homicide,” explained the vice provost. Ultimately, the ruling was made in favor of Miller, but it didn’t completely rule out the possibility for a minor to receive a sentence of life without parole.

“[The court] didn’t say you couldn’t have life without parole sentences for juveniles,” said Pokorak. “Instead, they said you can’t have mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles because it ignores all the qualities of youth that brain science has taught us over time.”

The Supreme Court took into consideration the scientific proof that minors are more likely to be impulsive and perceive risk and stimuli in a different way, explained Pokorak. It ruled that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment that prevents cruel and unusual punishment.

With this landmark decision came the issue of how to address the thousands of incarcerated Americans who were given mandatory life sentences without parole when they were juveniles. The court now viewed these sentences as unconstitutional.

According to Pokorak, all but four states applied Miller v. Alabama retroactively by granting resentencing hearings to prisoners who were sentenced to life without parole as minors. Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania decided not to apply Miller retroactively.

“They decided it wasn’t retroactive because it was still possible to get life without parole. The question was then how to determine who can receive life without parole,” said Pokorak.

“[These states] were talking about a procedure, and that’s what we were litigating.”

Recently, the Supreme Court presided over Montgomery v. Louisiana, in which Pokorak was co-counsel, to determine this procedure. The defendant, Henry Montgomery, had been in prison for 45 years for killing Louisiana Sheriff’s Deputy, Charles Hurt, in 1963.

“The Montgomery case is interesting because he’s been [in prison] since 1963. Race and crime was really interesting, and that’s what I wanted to highlight,” said Pokorak. “It was really a crazy time.”

Pokorak noted that the original trial was heavily affected by racial bias and referred to it as “straight out of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

The Court ruled in favor of Montgomery, and now he, as well as many other prisoners with mandatory life sentences, will now get their chance at parole.

The Court also set guidelines for determining what constitutes a minor receiving a life sentence without parole.

“They basically said the only way you can give a juvenile a life-without-parole sentence is if they are considered permanently corrupt or incorrigible,” he said.

Technology and the understanding of the adolescent mind has advanced, changing the way the court sees juvenile offenders, Pokorak explained.

“What we know about brain science and youth shows that no kid is permanently corrupt. They set a very, very high standard for life without parole sentences for juveniles,” he said.