Pardon the interruption. This post will mostly be about death penalty sentencing, something that would normally be out of bounds for this blog. However, a recent Ohio Supreme Court case provides a substantial basis challenging North Carolina’s use of juvenile adjudications to support death sentences—and only death sentences—and highlights a split of authority that can only be resolved by the United States Supreme Court. Because the case indirectly highlights how North Carolina has long understood that juvenile adjudication is about rehabilitation, and how woefully behind the times North Carolina is when it comes to capital sentencing and juvenile adjudications, the decision, available here, is worth a read in full.
The Ohio Supreme Court held that a juvenile adjudication was inadmissible in adult sentencing proceedings. That court reasoned that it would be fundamentally unfair to enhance an adult sentence with a juvenile adjudication because of the “civil nature” of juvenile adjudications, which emphasize rehabilitation, and lack a jury trial guarantee. The court concluded that the Ohio statute permitting use of juvenile adjudications to enhance adult sentences violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.
North Carolina, for every adult sentence other than death sentences, is far ahead of the game on this one. Back in 2005, the Court of Appeals reached the same result. It was able to do so in two short sentences because in 1998 the legislature passed section 7B-2412, excluding all juvenile adjudications from consideration as a criminal offense. In the 2005 case, the Court of Appeals took the opportunity to confirm that, yes, this provision means juvenile adjudications cannot be used to enhance non-capital criminal sentences. Hurray! Juvenile court really is about rehabilitation! (Also, how could the state in good faith fight them on this issue?)
Sadly, the story does not end here. As part of a wave of “juvenile superpredator” hysteria, in 1994, the legislature amended the death penalty sentencing scheme specifically allow juvenile adjudications (i.e. offenses committed by persons age 15 or less) to support a finding of death (during the same session, the legislature reduced the age a juvenile could be transferred to adult court from 14 to 13). The juvenile adjudications were specifically authorized for use to support the state’s case for a death sentence, not the defendant’s case for life. The myth of the juvenile superpredator is dead, but the legislature’s decision to hold juvenile conduct against capital defendants lives on.
Our courts have not addressed the effect of the 1998 legislation on the superpredator inspired expansion of our death sentencing statute. (In 2002, in the only case I am aware of that deals with this particular part of the death sentencing statute, the Supreme Court held that using juvenile adjudications that took place prior to the 1994 amendment in support of a death sentence for a crime that took place after the amendment did not violate the ex post facto clause. For procedural reasons, the same court refused to address the interaction of section 7B-2412 and the capital sentencing statute.)
The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision provides several reasons to question the ongoing constitutionality North Carolina’s use of juvenile adjudications to support a sentence of death. First, like Ohio, there are no juries in North Carolina juvenile adjudications. The Ohio Supreme Court recognized that the lack of a jury guarantee impairs the reliability of juvenile adjudications (even as it gives a judge more leeway to fashion a remedy conducive to rehabilitation), making them a dubious basis for enhancing a death sentence.
It is particularly troubling that all sentencing proceedings exclude the adjudications, except for death penalty proceedings. When the stakes are the highest, due process demands the most. But our sentencing scheme, taken as a whole, provides for exactly the opposite: juvenile adjudications can make a person death eligible even though they cannot be considered for any less serious punishment. Such an upside down orientation cannot pass meaningful scrutiny.
Next, even more fundamentally, the entire juvenile justice process is supposed to be geared towards “providing rehabilitative services to juveniles and their families” with the goal of deterring future delinquent or criminal conduct. In contrast, the “primary purpose” of adult sentencing is to “impose a punishment.” For this reason, North Carolina has necessarily failed a person adjudicated delinquent as a juvenile who ultimately reoffends. Such systemic failures are a reason to show mercy, not punish more harshly. But our capital sentencing scheme provides for exactly the opposite.
This reasoning should also apply prevent use of juvenile conduct to as 404(b) evidence. Our rules of evidence explicitly allow juvenile conduct to be used for purposes such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake, entrapment, or accident. The recognition that juvenile conduct is different in kind from adult conduct should fully undermine the use of juvenile conduct as saying much of anything about an adult’s conduct. Objections based on due process and rule 403 should prevent its admission.
Likewise, juvenile conduct should be inadmissible to rebut the mitigating factor (including the specific capital circumstance or the catchall non-capital circumstance) of a lack of significant criminal history. Juvenile conduct is, by statutory definition, not “criminal behavior” and should be excluded for that reason alone. Additionally, the same common sense recognition that juveniles’ culpability is different in kind from adults, the recognition driving the Ohio Supreme Court decision, should exclude its use to rebut this mitigating circumstance.
In sum, it’s great that North Carolina long-ago reached the same conclusion the Ohio Supreme Court recently arrived upon: juvenile adjudications have no place enhancing adult sentences. However, it’s problematic that our capital sentencing scheme allows juries to do exactly this.
John Mills is a Principal Attorney at The Phillips Black Project, where he represents persons sentenced to death and juveniles sentenced to life without parole and its equivalent.