Judge Griffen strikes down 2017 law on sentencing juvenile killers | Arkansas Blog

Judge Griffen strikes down 2017 law on sentencing juvenile killers


BRANDON HARDMAN: New sentencing ordered in 2000 murder case.
  • BRANDON HARDMAN: New sentencing ordered in 2000 murder case.
Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen today ruled that a 2017 law addressing sentencing of juvenile killers was unconstitutional.

He said the law unconstitutionally took sentencing out of the hands of a jury by setting a mandatory life sentence for capital murder, first-degree murder and treason, with a possibility of parole after 25 years for 1st-degree murder and 30 years for capital murder.

The law was an effort to amend Arkansas law to comport with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held life without parole sentences unconstitutional for juvenile offenders 17 and younger.

Since that Supreme Court decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court has begun hearing cases from people sentenced to life as juveniles. It has held that they should receive sentencing hearings and be given a chance to present evidence about age, the nature of the crime and other issues and given a sentence within the range for Class Y felonies.

The legislature failed in its effort to create "age appropriate sentencing standards," Griffen ruled. The right to a jury trial includes jury sentencing, he said. "The issue of sentencing is not determined by the General Assembly. The General Assembly only determines the range of punishment for given sentences."

The mandatory sentence in the 2017 law deprives defendants of the ability to present mitigating evidence on sentencing. The so-called Fair Sentencing of Minors Act doesn't pass constitutional muster because "it denies individualized sentencing."

Griffen also said the law encroached on separation of powers. The state argued that the law provides parole hearings at which defendants can offer mitigating evidence. But Griffen said parole hearings are not sentencing hearings. They are a condition of release subsequent to sentencing, he said. He said the legislature overstepped its authority because parole is an executive branch function.

Griffen ruled in the case of Brandon Hardman, who was convicted in 2002 of a capital murder in 2000 in Little Rock. He was sentenced to life without parole, a sentence vacated in June 2016 under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Hardman, then 16, fatally shot Antwan Jones near 28th and Battery. The shooting occurred in what was then considered Vice Lords territory. Hardman was a member of the Gangster Disciple gang. Prosecutors relied heavily on Hardman's purported gang background in the prosecution.

Griffen ordered that a sentencing hearing be scheduled for Hardman, that he be allowed to present evidence  and that he be sentenced within the statutory range for a Class Y felony, between 10 and 40 years.

I've asked the attorney general for a reaction. The normal action would be to continue to defend the law on appeal.


“Attorney General Rutledge will review today’s decision and evaluate how to proceed.”

Here's Griffen's opinion.
Griffen has been barred from hearing death penalty cases by the Supreme Court. This isn't such a case. But the decision is likely to rankle at least a few legislators already unhappy about his participation in a death penalty protest the day he decided in a drug company's favor its property rights lawsuit over a claim the state had dishonestly obtained its drugs for executions. That led to a Supreme Court reversal, the order to take Griffen off death cases and pending judicial discipline cases on the matter.

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