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Presumptions, Dangerousness, and the Eighth Amendment

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Yesterday the Supreme Court of Idaho released its opinion in the case of State v. Windom, 2011 WL 891318. The facts of the case are gruesome and center on the murder of Judith Windom by her mentally disturbed son.  From an early age, Ethan Windom was fascinated with serial killers and death.  He was an avid follower of the thriller, American Psycho.  For years he dreamed of committing murder and finally indulged in that fantasy on January 24, 2007, brutally killing his mother while she slept.  At trial for murder, the inevitable question arose: what's wrong with Ethan?  Four mental health experts all came to different conclusions and Ethan was convicted of Murder 2nd.  At sentencing the trial judge had to determine what was the appropriate sentence for a crime so heinous and senseless but for a defendant so young and disturbed.   The trial court elected for a fixed life term.
One issue on appeal was whether the trial court properly sentenced Ethan Windom based on the uncertainty of danger he posed if released.  The majority had this intriguing discussion:

Sentencing is less a science than an art. Judges face a different uncertainty principle than physicists: they must make a factual finding of the probability of future criminal behavior based upon limited data. In so doing, they draw upon their accumulated experience. It is precisely because of the difficulty of fashioning an objectively appropriate sentence that this Court has adopted a deferential standard of review of sentencing decisions. In this case, Windom essentially asks this Court to re-weigh the evidence presented to the district court and reach a different conclusion as to his prospects for rehabilitation. It is evident that the district court did not believe that it was appropriate to abdicate its responsibility to conduct its own assessment of Windom's mental condition based upon the evidence before it and to accept, without reservation, the opinions of two doctors who offered promises of Windom's complete rehabilitation. If we were acting as sentencing judges, we may well have done as the dissent suggests, and placed greater weight on the opinions of Dr. Beaver and Estess than did the district court. However, our role is not to reweigh the evidence considered by the district court; our role is to determine whether reasonable minds could reach the same conclusion as did the district court. Applying this standard, we can find no error in the district court's finding that Windom represented an unreasonable risk of future dangerous behavior.FN2

    FN2. The dissent relies heavily upon Graham v. Florida, ---U.S. ----, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010) and Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) in support of the conclusion that the district court abused its discretion. We believe this reliance to be misplaced inasmuch as both decisions rested upon the Eighth Amendment. Indeed, when considering the sentence imposed upon a defendant who was under 18 at the time of his crime, Graham expressly recognized that "[t]here is a line 'between homicide and other serious violent offenses against the individual.' " 130 S.Ct. at 2027 (quoting Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407, 438, 128 S.Ct. 2641, 2660 (2008)). In view of this clear line of demarcation, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to confuse our well-established standard of review of a trial court's sentencing decision by selective application of statements found in decisions defining the scope of Eighth Amendment protections.

The dissent's view was quite different:

Of course, no court can ever be absolutely certain or guarantee that someone will not re-offend, but a fixed-life sentence "should not be regarded as a judicial hedge against uncertainty." State v. Cross, 132 Idaho 667, 672, 978 P.2d 227, 232 (1999). The proper standard to apply in imposing a life sentence without possibility of parole was spelled out in State v. Jackson, 130 Idaho 293, 939 P.2d 1372 (1997). "[A] fixed life term, with its rigid preclusion of parole or good time, should be regarded as a sentence requiring a high degree of certainty ... that the perpetrator never, at any time in his life, could be safely released ." Id. at 294-95, 939 P.2d at 1373-74 (quoting State v. Eubank, 114 Idaho 635, 638, 759 P.2d 926, 929 (Ct.App.1988)). The district court applied the wrong legal standard by requiring Ethan to show a high degree of certainty that he could be rehabilitated someday. The district court instead should have required the State to show a high degree of certainty that Ethan could not be rehabilitated someday. That Ethan's doctors cannot guarantee his eventual rehabilitation is not enough to justify a fixed-life sentence.

The Majority asserts that the district court correctly recognized this legal standard, but I respectfully disagree. The Majority itself cites a lengthy excerpt in which, over and over again, the district court expressed uncertainty over Ethan's rehabilitative potential. Indeed, throughout its ruling, the court repeatedly indicated that it was imposing a life sentence because it was unsure about whether Ethan would continue to comply with treatment if released from prison decades from now....

A court sending a mentally ill child to prison for the rest of his life without a chance at parole should be more certain of its decision.

The different conclusions reached by the majority and dissent suggest a growing tension between the dicta of Roper, Graham and presumptions of dangerousness inherent in sentencing determinations.  When a juvenile commits a depraved and savage crime, what presumptions should apply regarding his propensity for violence?  If the behavioral science literature lacks clarity what way should that ambiguity cut?  The dicta of Roper and Graham suggest some deference to rehabilitation but as the majority concluded there are limits.  But what if Ethan had failed to complete the crime and only savagely beat Judith to an inch of her life?  What would meaningful rehabilitation per Roper and Graham look like if the behavioral sciences cannot provide concrete assessments of future dangerousness?   

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im reading this for a school project i need to know how this relates to the 8th amendment please could someone help me?

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