For The Record

With its 2012 decision in the landmark Miller v. Alabama case, the U.S. Supreme Court declared mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole unconstitutional for minors. The decision sent many states into a flurry of action as they worked to resentence past cases. But others — including Virginia — applied the ruling only moving forward. It wasn’t until Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016 that the Supreme Court clarified the ruling applies retroactively and any juveniles sentenced to life in prison must be resentenced.

Azeem Majeed was the first defendant in Virginia to be resentenced following Montgomery — and his case was argued with the help of Julie McConnell, clinical professor of law, and Richmond Law’s Children’s Defense Clinic.

Majeed was sentenced to two life sentences for a 1995 murder in Norfolk, Va. His guilt wasn’t disputed, but during the 20 years Majeed spent in prison, much of the thinking around mandatory life sentences has been.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s,many states aggressively prosecuted juveniles in adult court systems under the notion of “adult time for adult crime.” However, more recent psychological research has led to a new understanding of brain development and impulse control in teenagers, leading many to reconsider the appropriateness of mandatory life sentences.

“A 17-year-old is a work in progress,” McConnell says. “A judge needs to be able to consider context and exercise discretion. Mandatory sentences don’t allow for that nuanced approach.”

McConnell also says more reasonable sentences on the front end prevent lengthy litigation and, as a result, reduce ongoing stress on the families of victims.

After two semesters of work — with McConnell and clinic students preparing Majeed for an in-court statement, conducting sentencing research, and working on a re-entry plan — Majeed was resentenced in May 2017. In his statement, he described his growth and development in prison, emphasizing his deep commitment to Islam and his work with fellow inmates on nonviolent responses to conflict. His sentence was reduced dramatically, and Majeed will be eligible for release in four to five years.

McConnell says the decision “sets the tone for future resentencing cases.” But his case is also a model for lawyers working on similar cases. There are about 2,500 people in the U.S. who are now eligible for resentencing. McConnell shared her experience during a multi-day workshop for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy and the Youth Law Center. The program included sessions on direct and cross-examination of witnesses, developing client narratives, and crafting re-entry plans — sometimes working with participants on active cases.

McConnell’s work isn’t finished, either. The Children’s Defense Clinic will consult on two new resentencing cases: a murder case from Bedford, Virginia, and Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the 2002 D.C. snipers.