Missouri high court upholds life sentences for older teens

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday against a Missouri man who had argued that the ban on life sentences for juveniles should also apply to older teenagers. He was imprisoned for killing his grandparents at age 19.

The man, David Barnett, of suburban St. Louis, is now 43. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for the murders, in 1996.

He asked Missouri judges to expand on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that mandatory life sentences without a chance at parole for juveniles are unconstitutional.

But Missouri Supreme Court judges wrote in a unanimous opinion that the U.S. Supreme Court defined juveniles as under age 18 and that they must follow the high court’s decision.

Barnett’s public defender, Rosemary Percival, said Tuesday in an email that the ruling was “disappointing” and that “if anyone deserves parole, it’s David.”

“Any jury, after hearing about the horrible abuse and neglect David suffered, his attempts to get help, and his excellent prison behavior, would give him the chance for parole,” Percival said. “No teenager should be doomed to die in prison without even a chance to show why he deserves to be released someday.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that teens should be treated differently than adult offenders at sentencing because teens are less mature, prone to manipulation and capable of change. The court found that all but the rare juvenile lifer whose crime reflects “permanent incorrigibility” should have a chance to argue for freedom one day.

Missouri judges wrote that it’s up to the Missouri Legislature to decide whether to “expand the definition of juvenile to include offenders older than 18 years of age.”

Missouri is one of just five states — along with Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Texas — that begin adult court jurisdiction at age 17 rather than 18.

But Missouri and Michigan have enacted laws that will raise the adult court age to 18 starting in 2021. Missouri’s law is contingent on the Legislature’s appropriating money to provide the expanded juvenile services.

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