Santa Fe High School Shooter Ineligible for Death Penalty
17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis reportedly admitted to investigators that he murdered 10 people and wounded at least 13 others when he carried out a mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Galveston County Friday. He's currently being held in solitary confinement, and though he's been charged as an adult, two Supreme Court rulings will prevent his being executed or imprisoned for life without the possibility of parole.
In 2005, by a vote of 5-4, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Eighteenth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid the State from executing people who were under the age of 18 at the time they committed their crime.
At age 17, Christopher Simmons and a friend broke into a woman's Missouri home, bound her with duct tape, and threw her from a bridge into a river. Prosecutors were able to prove that the act was premeditated, and at 18, Simmons was convicted and sentenced to death.
Simmons appealed, and in 2004, Roper v. Simmons made its way to the SCOTUS. In 2005, the majority of justices held that executing an offender who was under the age of 18 at the time of their crime violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments' prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. They also upheld an earlier Court's interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, arguing that it prohibits the execution of someone deemed mentally unfit, including juveniles with underdeveloped minds.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated, "An unacceptable likelihood exists that the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime would overpower mitigating arguments based on youth as a matter of course, even where the juvenile offender’s objective immaturity, vulnerability, and lack of true depravity should require a sentence less severe than death. When a juvenile commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity. While drawing the line at 18 is subject to the objections always raised against categorical rules, that is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood and the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest."
The majority felt that there was a national consensus against executing minors, which factored heavily into their decision.*
In 2003, then 14-year-old Alabama resident Evan Miller and and a friend beat a man with a baseball bat, then set the man's home ablaze with him inside. Three years later, Miller was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After a series of appeals, Miller v. Alabama came before the Supreme Court, the majority of which ruled that sentencing a minor to life imprisonment without parole was also a violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, as such a sentenced was deemed unconstitutionally disproportionate.
"[T]he characteristics of youth, and the way they weaken rationales for punishment, can render a life-without-parole sentence disproportionate," Justice Elena Kagan wrote.
"State law mandated that each juvenile die in prison even if a judge or jury would have thought that his youth and its attendant characteristics, along with the nature of his crime, made a lesser sentence (for example, life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate," she wrote. "Such a scheme prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s “lessened culpability” and greater “capacity for change".
So, while Pagourtzis has been charged as an adult, his age at the time of Friday's heinous act will prevent his being eligible for a death sentence if convicted, and as The Houston Chronicle reports, he will be eligible for parole 40 years after being sentenced.
*Note: In his dissenting opinion on the matter of Roper v. Simmons, Antonin Scalia wrote, "On the evolving-standards hypothesis, the only legitimate function of this Court is to identify a moral consensus of the American people. By what conceivable warrant can nine lawyers presume to be the authoritative conscience of the Nation?