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Juvenile Life Without Parole - Show your support for Jacqueline Montanez

Over the last few years we have blogged about the issue of juvenile life without parole in the USA, a sentence which condemns children to spend the rest of their lives in prison, without any possibility of release, for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old. The life without parole sentence is often mandatory for children tried in adult courts and is therefore imposed without any consideration of a child’s potential for development, change and rehabilitation, or any mitigating factors in the particular case.

We asked you to take action for Jordan Brown, who was facing trial in an adult court for a murder allegedly committed when he was only 11 years old. Jordan was initially facing trial as an adult and, if convicted, would have received a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. After more than a year of legal argument and an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Jordan’s trial was finally transferred to a juvenile court.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) includes the principle that no person aged under 18 at the time of an offence should be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of release. The USA and Somalia are the only two countries that have not ratified the CRC, but, as a signatory, the USA is bound under international law to do nothing which would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty pending its decision to ratify.

Earlier this year we asked you to take action for Christi Cheramie, who was sentenced to life without parole when she was just 16. She was convicted of second-degree murder in relation to the killing of her 18-year-old fiancé’s great aunt, which she maintains he fiancé carried out.

Christi’s case was transferred to an adult court for trial just 3 days after her arrest, and before a hearing at which factors such as her history of mental health issues and amenability to rehabilitation would have been considered. Christi’s childhood had been marked by sexual abuse and at age 13 she was hospitalized after trying to commit suicide. At the time of her trial she was described by a psychiatrist as a ‘depressed, dependent and insecure’ 16 year old, who ‘seems to have been fearful of crossing’ her fiancé. Christi pleaded guilty before her trial in the adult court, fearing she could be sentenced to death if the trial went ahead.

Aged 33 and described as a ‘model inmate’ and ‘worthy of a second chance in society’, Christi made an application for clemency, but her application was unsuccessful earlier this year.

On 25 June 2012 the US Supreme Court outlawed mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for those aged under 18 at the time of the offence, finding that these violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The court said that such mandatory sentences prevented the sentencer from taking into account central considerations, including the offender’s young age, and assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment would be a proportionate punishment for a juvenile.

Jacqueline Montanez is one of more than 2,500 people currently serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for offences committed whilst they were under 18.  

On 12 May 1992, when she was just 15 years old, Jacqueline, with two other young women, shot and killed two men who were members of a rival street gang. Due to the nature of the charges – first degree murder – Jacqueline was automatically tried in the adult criminal system, where the only sentence available on conviction was life without the possibility of parole. Had Jacqueline been tried in a juvenile court, factors such as her young age, history of abuse, mental health issues, home environment and amenability to rehabilitation would have been considered.

Jacqueline’s stepfather was a drug dealer and ‘enforcer’ for the Latin Kings street gang and groomed Jacqueline to be a gang ‘soldier’ from a very young age. She was sent out to deliver heroin when she was as young as six. When Jacqueline was 8, her school alerted social services because she had multiple bruises, which she had told her teachers had resulted from being hit by her stepfather, who also allegedly sexually abused her for years.

From the age of 9, Jacqueline started abusing drugs and alcohol and eventually joined a gang rival to her stepfather’s. She has said she repeatedly ran away from home to escape the abuse, which led to her being intermittently placed in the custody of social services from the age of 12. At the time for the crime, shortly before her 16th birthday, she had run away from a foster home and not attended school since the eighth grade.

Now aged 36, Jacqueline says she has reflected on her involvement in the murders and accepted full responsibility, saying ‘Not a day goes by that I don’t wish it were me. They were human, they were somebody’s father, they were somebody’s child.’

After more than 20 years in prison, Jacqueline Montanez believes she has grown into a very different person. She has a high school diploma and has completed almost all available education and vocational programmes. She has become a certified trainer of service dogs for disabled people; is a published poet; tutors and mentors other inmates via the Dwight Prison Ministry program; and is committed to speaking out for and about troubled young people, particularly those who have been abused and those trapped in the gang lifestyle which she herself was born into.

Despite the changes to her life and the adult that she has become, Jacqueline’s sentence means that she is destined to spend the rest of her life in prison, unless granted clemency. At the beginning of this year Jacqueline submitted an application for clemency to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board and her case was reviewed on 11 April 2012. We understand that the Board has made a confidential, non-binding recommendation to Governor Pat Quinn, who is now considering her clemency application.

Jacqueline is featured in this year’s Write for Rights Campaign – here

You can also record a voice message for Jacqueline, which will be recorded on to a cassette tape for her to listen to in prison – here


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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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