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USA: Children, Life Without Parole, and the Case of Christi Cheramie

In the USA children can be sentenced to life without parole, despite an almost universal legal and moral consensus that this sentence should never be imposed on someone under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (which has been ratified by all states except the USA and Somalia) provides in Article 37 that:

‘States Parties shall ensure that:

(a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age’.

 This recognises that children are still developing and not fully mature or fully responsible for their actions. Importantly, it also recognises that children have a special potential for rehabilitation and change, and should have the opportunity to be reintegrated into society. A sentence of life without parole denies children this chance of reintegration and, with it, the chance of rehabilitation. Children who receive this sentence are condemned to spend the rest of their lives in prison, no matter how they change, develop and learn as they move towards adulthood.

Children receive these sentences following prosecution as adults, as every US state has mechanisms that allow or require children to be prosecuted in the adult, rather than the juvenile, justice system. Some cases may be transferred to an adult criminal court at the prosecution’s request, or automatically for certain offences.

Last year Frances blogged about the case of Jordan Brown (here and here), and asked you to action on his behalf. Aged just 13, Jordan Brown was facing trial as an adult for the murder of his father’s girlfriend – a crime that was committed when he was only 11 years old. If Jordan had been tried and convicted in an adult court, the sentence of life without parole would have been mandatory.

A trial judge initially refused the transfer of Jordan’s trial to a juvenile court unless he pleaded guilty (saying this would demonstrate that he could be rehabilitated). However, such an approach clearly violated Jordan’s right not to incriminate himself, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court agreed. Jordan’s case was sent for a new transfer hearing and in August 2011 we heard the good news that Jordan’s trial had been transferred to the juvenile court.

However, there are more than 2,500 people in the USA currently serving sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were younger than 18 years old. This has included children who were only 11 years old at the time the crime was committed.  

Christi Cheramie

Christi Cheramie is an example of the injustice of life without parole, a sentence which can never take account of the way an individual has developed, reformed and changed their life.

Christi Cheramie was sentenced to life without parole when she was just 16. 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. Her childhood had been marked by sexual abuse, and at age 13 she was hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic after trying to commit suicide.

Christi was convicted of second-degree murder in relation to the killing of her 18 year old fiancé’s great aunt, which she maintains her fiancé carried out. Her 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 pleaded guilty just before her trial in the adult court, fearing she could be sentenced to death if the trial went ahead.

In 2001 she sought to withdraw her plea, saying she had not understood the proceedings at the time, or what pleading guilty to second degree murder really meant. Her request was denied, and her guilty plea prevents her from directly challenging her conviction or sentence.  

Now 33 years old, Christi has obtained a high school equivalency diploma and a degree in agricultural studies, and is currently in charge of a number of classes on this subject in the prison where she is held. She has completed nearly all of the available education and vocational programmes and has been described by a Warden as a ‘model inmate’, ‘worthy of a second chance in society.’ Christi has expressed remorse over the death of the victim, Mildred Turnage, and Mildred Turnage’s closest relatives have stated that they believe Christi Cheramie deserves a second chance and that she was ‘very very young’ at the time.

However, with a sentence of life without parole, and no opportunity to appeal against either her conviction or sentence, Christi’s only hope of receiving that second chance is if she is granted clemency.

Christi Cheramie submitted an application for clemency with the Louisiana Board of Pardons in November 2011, and on 23 and 24 January the Louisiana Board of Pardons will decide whether to hear her application.

You can take action for Christi by writing to the Governor of Louisiana  and the Chairman of the Louisiana Pardons Board.

You can read more about this issue and Christi Cheramie’s case in Amnesty International’s recent report This is where I’m going to be when I die’, which also includes the cases of two other people serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed when they were children: Jacqueline Montanez and David Young.

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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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