Juvenile lifer who set precedent sentenced to life again

KIM CHANDLER
·4-min read

MOULTON, Ala. (AP) — Evan Miller was just 14 when he committed the slaying that sent him to prison.

In reviewing his case, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles — saying judges and juries should consider the special factors of youth — a decision that eventually led to inmates across the country getting a chance at release.

But Miller will not get that chance. A judge on Tuesday handed down a second life sentence without possibility of parole.

Lawrence Circuit Judge Mark Craig ruled that Evan Miller, despite being a young teen when he committed his crime, met the legal criteria to be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. Craig said the severity of Miller’s crime outweighed the mitigating factors of Miller’s age and his abuse-filled childhood that the defense argued made him deserving of an opportunity of a chance to get out of prison some day.

Craig said a sentence of life without the possibility of parole was the “only just sentence” over the lesser punishment of life with a chance of parole after 30 years.

Miller was 14 in 2003 when he and another teen beat Cole Cannon with a baseball bat before setting fire to his trailer, a crime for which he was originally sentenced to a mandatory life sentence.

Before handing down the sentence, Craig repeated the line that Miller was attributed with saying before he delivered a final blow to Cannon: “I am God. I’ve come to take your life.” Craig said those were some of “the most chilling words I have heard.”

Craig said he was not convinced Miller could be rehabilitated and noted that Miller was the primary aggressor in the slaying.

“Had you not made the decisions that night, Mr. Cannon, in my view, would still be alive,” Craig said. “You showed cunning, not clumsy, rash thinking.”

Miller, now 32, appeared during the hearing, which was conducted virtually, by video link from an office at the Alabama prison where he is incarcerated. He did not visibly react as the sentence was read.

The Supreme Court in 2012 ruled in Miller's case that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In the 2012 opinion in Miller’s case, justices ordered that judges and juries should consider “children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change” should make such sentences “uncommon.”

“Miller’s stepfather physically abused him; his alcoholic and drug-addicted mother neglected him; he had been in and out of foster care as a result; and he had tried to kill himself four times, the first when he should have been in kindergarten,” the court wrote in the majority opinion.

While other juvenile lifers across the country have seen their sentences reduced because of Miller's case and a later ruling that made the decision retroactive, his own case had lingered without a decision until Tuesday.

At an earlier resentencing hearing, Miller’s lawyers cited his childhood of physical abuse and neglect and argued that at 14, his brain was not fully developed.

The Equal Justice Initiative, which has represented Miller, did not immediately comment on the decision.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said the judge, “restored the punishment that is fitting for Evan Miller’s wicked actions.”

“When Evan Miller robbed and savagely beat his neighbor, setting fire to the man’s trailer and leaving his incapacitated victim to die a horrible death, he earned a well-deserved sentence of life in prison without parole,” Marshall said in a statement.

Cannon's daughter, Candy Cheatham, had previously called Miller's apology for the slaying “empty words.”

The Supreme Court had been moving toward greater mercy for juveniles over more than a decade, first ending the death penalty for people under 18 and then reducing the universe of people who could get life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. But in a departure from that trend, the court last week held that judges do not have to determine that a juvenile offender is beyond hope of rehabilitation before ruling that he should spend the rest of his life in prison.