A group of University of Texas School of Law students has helped file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of getting a South Carolina teenager’s sentence reviewed.
The petition, filed on Monday, asks the court to review the case of Christopher Pittman, who is serving a 30-year sentence without parole for murdering his grandparents when he was 12.
Five third-year law students from the school’s Supreme Court Clinic in Austin teamed up with five public policy students and spent the semester working on the case, said Michele Deitch, an attorney and criminal justice policy expert who teaches at the law school and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
“The case itself is a very important one because there was real injustice done to this 12-year-old,” Deitch said. “It was a case that had a lot of complicated issues so it was also one that we thought needed expertise of our students and faculty and experts in both law and public policy.”
The 50-page certiorari petition presents several arguments why the court should grant a review, including that the Eighth Amendment imposes meaningful limits on non-capital sentencing of children. The document also asks the court to consider the issue of punishment of children raised in Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 Supreme Court decision that said it is unconstitutional to impose capital punishment on children under 18. The petition states that a 30-year-old sentence without parole is “grossly disproportionate” for a crime committed at the age of 12.
The law clinic was approached about the case by Earl Landers “Lanny” Vickery, an Austin-based attorney and law school graduate who helped handle Pittman’s case in the South Carolina courts, Deitch said.
Students researched the limits of child sentencing in other states and countries for the petition, Deitch said. The document points out that in more than half of the nation’s legislatures, it is not possible to try a 12-year-old as an adult and that in the remaining states, they have not found any case where a young child received such a lengthy sentence.
Worldwide, most countries also have established a minimum age of criminal responsibility higher than 12, the petition states.
Mark Plowden, communications director for the South Carolina Attorney General, did not return a call for comment on Tuesday.
The law school expects the nation’s highest court to decide in March whether to hear the case.
Pittman, now 18, killed his grandparents in 2001 and then set fire to their home. His attorneys argued during his trial that he was influenced by Zoloft, the anti-depressant drug.