Chris Meadoux, who turns 20 on Oct. 1, is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for slaying two people in 2007 when he was 16 years old. If Meadoux had committed the murders this year, he would have a chance at parole after serving 40 years behind bars because he committed the crime as a minor. However, Meadoux killed the pair before the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 839 in 2009.
Texas’ position on permitting parole eligibility for juveniles convicted of capital murder has changed over the years. Prior to 2005, juveniles who committed capital murder could receive the death penalty or a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years. But in 2005, the Texas Legislature changed that law to say all capital offenders could never be released from prison, according to the Senate Research Center’s analysis of S.B. 839.
Then in 2009, lawmakers changed their mind and passed S.B. 839, eliminating the sentence of life without parole for juveniles certified to be tried as adults for capital murder. The bill took effect on Sept. 1, 2009, but does not apply retroactively.
According to information provided by Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clarke, Meadoux is one of 20 juvenile offenders serving life without parole in this state. Houston criminal-defense solo Brian Wice says there are 19, because an appellate court recently remanded the case of one of his clients for a new trial.
In Meadoux v. State , a case of first impression, Cheves Ligon, of counsel at the Bexar County Appellate Public Defender’s Office, will argue on Meadoux’s behalf Sept. 15 before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He will try to persuade the court that sentencing a juvenile to life without the chance of parole constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Noting that Meadoux was 16 at the time of the murders, Ligon says, “Someone who was this age when he committed an offense . . . is not developed enough as a person to act with such a degree of culpability that we should place him in jail until he dies.”
Referring to the young people now serving life without parole, Bexar County First Assistant Criminal District Attorney Cliff Herberg says, “The juries heard the cases and decided that was the appropriate sentence.”
Herberg says the Legislature could have chosen to make S.B. 839 retroactive, but it didn’t.
“It’s possible the Legislature was quite aware of these cases and decided to let the jury verdicts stand,” he says.
But state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, a solo and author of the bill, says, “It was an oversight. In this type of situation, my intent would have been to make the law applicable to this case.”
State Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, House sponsor of S.B. 839, says it was not the Legislature’s intent that juveniles convicted of capital murder before the bill took effect should serve life in prison with no chance for parole.
“That was not the intent of where we are going,” McReynolds says.
Cruel and Unusual?
San Antonio’s 4th Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s judgment in Meadoux on Dec. 9, 2009, provides the following background on the case: On Jan. 24, 2007, firefighters found two bodies in a locked bedroom at the scene of a house fire. Luis Martinez’s and Johnny You’s bodies each had two gunshot wounds to the head and a neck laceration. Fire investigators determined the blaze was set intentionally.
When detectives questioned him at the police station, Meadoux initially said he was not involved in the deaths. But Meadoux subsequently said he accidentally committed the murders when he and You fought over a gun and it discharged. Meadoux said he set the fire to cover up the killings.
Authorities arrested Meadoux in August 2007 and certified him to be tried as an adult. After a trial, the jury returned a general verdict, finding Meadoux guilty of capital murder, and the trial court sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole, the automatic sentence at that time.
Among other things in his appeal to the 4th Court, Meadoux challenged Texas’ sentencing scheme of automatic life without parole for a juvenile convicted of capital murder. The 4th Court, which ruled against Meadoux on all of his issues, concluded that the Texas sentencing scheme does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment
Justice Phylis Speedlin wrote for the 4th Court, “Given that the legislature chose not to apply the parole eligibility amendment retroactively to juveniles who have already been sentenced for a capital murder, it would not be appropriate for the court to ‘judicially amend’ the statute.” Justices Rebecca Simmons and Steven Hilbig joined in the opinion.
The CCA website shows that Meadoux filed his petition for discretionary review with the CCA Feb. 2, and the court granted review March 24.
In his single ground for review, Meadoux argues that the 4th Court erred in finding that, in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence and statutory changes, a juvenile’s sentence of life without parole is constitutional.
Meadoux argues in his brief to the CCA that in determining what is impermissibly “cruel and unusual,” the Eighth Amendment takes into account in its proportionality analysis the characteristics of those convicted. In 2002′s Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty was impermissibly cruel and unusual when applied to the mentally retarded, Meadoux notes in the brief.
According to Meadoux’s brief, in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court found compelling reasons to hold the death penalty unconstitutional as applied to juveniles. Meadoux points out that in Roper v. Simmons ,the Supreme Court determined that juveniles lack maturity and possess an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, have greater susceptibility to peer pressure, and are still creatures in flux who are not yet fully formed.
The state argues in its brief to the CCA that Meadoux failed to present his complaint regarding the constitutionality of the sentencing scheme at trial and therefore waived it on appeal.
In its brief, the state also notes that, although the U.S. Supreme Court “factored age in the gross disproportionality analysis” in May 17′s Graham v. Florida, the court restricted its holding.
In its 6-3 decision in Graham , the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishments clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole for a nonhomicide offense.
With regard to Texas’ life-without-parole sentencing scheme for juveniles convicted of capital murder, Herberg says. “We feel like we’re well within the holding in Graham. “
Wice says if the CCA finds that the Eighth Amendment prevents life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, Meadoux would be eligible, upon request to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, for commutation of his sentence to life.
Wice represents Litrey Demond Turner, who originally was sentenced to life without parole for capital murder. Houston’s 1st Court Appeals remanded Turner’s case for a new trial in July 30′s Turner v. State. Turner was 15 years old at the time he allegedly committed his crime. [See "1st Court overturns conviction of prisoner who allegedly committed capital murder at age 15," Tex Parte blog, Aug. 3, 2010]
If the CCA rules against Meadoux, he still might have a chance at parole after he serves 40 years. Hinojosa says he plans to file a bill in 2011 that will clarify his intent in S.B. 839.
Notes Hinojosa, “I want to make it clear that this law is retroactive.”
Mary Alice Robbins is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/maryarobbins.