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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Asks U.S. Supreme Court To Reconsider Mandatory Life Sentences for Young Adults Suffering Mental, Emotional Trauma

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to re-consider mandatory life sentences for young adults suffering from mental and emotional trauma which, when combined with their youth and emotional immaturity, may have contributed to their criminal offenses. In an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in Nelson v. State of Minnesota, Institute attorneys assert that state courts erred in violation of the Eighth Amendment when they refused to consider mitigating circumstances for Jonas Nelson, who was sentenced as an adult to life in prison for a crime committed barely a week after his 18th birthday.

Attorneys Lyle D. Kossis and Katherine E. Lehnen of McGuire Woods LLP assisted in advancing the arguments in Nelson.

“If ever a case cried out for compassion and the kind of justice that the courts were supposed to represent, it’s this one,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This kind of tragedy—a childhood rife with abuse and a young adult struggling with mental illness—only gets compounded when the courts fail to act as advocates for the Constitution and instead serve as legalistic technicians for the penal state.” 

Jonas Nelson grew up in isolated, harsh and primitive conditions in rural Minnesota. Psychiatrists who examined Jonas found that his childhood provided few normal childhood experiences. When he was 14, Jonas’ parents divorced. When Jonas began to show signs of mental illness, including hostility and hearing voices, he was sent to live with his father, who had a history of abusing Jonas both psychologically and physically. On Jan. 6, 2014, just 7 days after his 18th birthday, Jonas shot and killed his father. Jonas told investigators that he felt he had no physical control when he shot his father, that he did not have a plan and that it happened in the spur of the moment. He was charged and convicted of first-degree murder. Because Minnesota law mandates a sentence of life without release (LWOR) for first-degree murder for adults, Jonas had no opportunity to show mitigating circumstances, such as his youth and mental condition. In imposing the sentence, the judge expressed regret in having to impose the mandatory life sentence, noting that he had never before sent a person so young to prison for so long. In post-conviction proceedings, Jonas’ attorneys argued that because Jonas was psychologically and emotionally a minor and the Constitution severely restricts life sentences for minors, the LWOR sentence violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. State courts subsequently rejected Jonas’ requests for a sentencing hearing to challenge his sentence as constitutionally disproportionate, Jonas filed a petition seeking review by the U.S. Supreme Court.  In asking the Supreme Court to consider Jonas’ request, The Rutherford Institute argues that modern research shows that many defendants like Jonas who are just over the age of 18 share the immaturity that makes minors ineligible for automatic LWOR sentences and are entitled to a hearing to show that an LWOR sentence is cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.

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