LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas judge ruled Thursday that a new state law barring mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen issued the ruling in the case of Brandon Hardman, who was convicted of capital murder in the 2000 fatal shooting of Antwan Jones in Little Rock, a crime that occurred when Hardman was 16. Hardman’s sentence was vacated after the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature and Gov. Asa Hutchinson approved Act 539 of 2017, the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act, which eliminated mandatory life-without-parole sentences for people who were under 18 at the time of their offenses. The law sought to bring Arkansas law in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The law prescribes a mandatory sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 25 or 30 years of imprisonment — depending on the crime — for a person convicted of capital murder, first-degree murder or treason committed when the person was under 18.
In a written order Thursday, Griffen said the law deprives defendants of their right to individualized sentencing hearings where they could present evidence.
“The FSMA cannot pass constitutional muster as it denies individualized sentencing hearings to Hardman and any other individuals in his situation,” Griffen said in the order.
Griffen also said the Legislature violated the doctrine of separation of powers by prescribing sentencing, which he said is “a function unequivocally vested in the judicial branch.”
He ordered that a sentencing hearing be held for Hardman and that Hardman be allowed to present evidence at the hearing. Hardman must be sentenced within the sentencing range for a Class Y felony, which is 10 to 40 years or life in prison, Griffen said.
A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement Thursday, “Attorney General Rutledge is reviewing today’s decision and will evaluate how to proceed.”