The U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule next month on whether its constitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole, even if they've convicted murder.
Two 14-year-olds — one in Alabama, the other in Arkansas — are the center of the case before the Supreme Court, in which attorneys argue such a sentence amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited in the United States by the 8th Amendment. The Supreme Court has already banned life sentences for those convicted of crimes other than murder, so this would merely be an extension of that previous ruling.
The decision could have a ripple effect across the country. More than 2,000 prisoners, juvenile offenders when they committed their crimes, are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
One of those prisoners is 37-year-old Joe Donovan of Massachusetts, who has been behind bars for 20 years.
"My whole adult life is in prison," he said.
Donovan was convicted of killing Yngve Raustein, 21-year-old MIT student from Norway in September 1992. Donovan and some friends were walking past Raustein and a friend when the two groups got into a scuffle. A series of events led to Raustein's death.
Prosecutors never argued Donovan was the killer, but rather convicted him under what's known as a felony murder statue. Shon McHugh, 15, actually did the killing. Because he was tried as a juvenile, he served just 11 years, while Donovan continues to sit in prison. A third defendant pleaded guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.
"I didn't think I did murder. I'd find it hard to plead guilty to something I didn't do," he said.
Donovan's hopeful the Supreme Court's decision will free him — but he's far from sure.
"I believe that they're going to rule with some sort of middle ground. What they may say is, 'If you did not participate in the murder, did not actually kill someone, you shouldn't be put in prison for the rest of your life without at least the chance of a hearing some point in the future,' " he said.
"They charged me as an adult automatically. They don't even have a hearing," he said. "They have a hearing for him to see if he could be rehabilitated. They said he can be rehabilitated. Because I was 17, I don't get that hearing."
But the Supreme Court has ruled that children don't lose their juvenile status, at least for purposes of the death penalty and life sentences, until they actually turn 18.
Donovan said jurors who have spoken out since his sentencing have said they didn't realize they were giving him so much time. The judge has also said that he should be released sooner.
"He's trying to get me released," Donovan said.
Even Raustein's family has said they believe Donovan has served his time and should be released.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on the subject in late March and a decision is expected later this year.