By GREG BLUESTEIN
Published: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 1:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 1:05 p.m.
ATLANTA - The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death, and that they also cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole for rape and other non-homicide offenses. But what about those juveniles who were convicted of murder?
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering a case that could answer that question. The court heard arguments in the case Wednesday.
Kenneth Loggins was convicted in Alabama of killing a hitchhiker in 1994 and originally sentenced to die. Loggins was 17 at the time of the killing, and three other people - ages 19, 17 and 16 - were also convicted in the slaying and sentenced to either death or life in prison. Loggins' punishment was reduced to life without parole after the Supreme Court banned such punishments in 2005.
His attorneys argue that the reduced punishment is still too strict of a sentence. They point to psychiatric evidence that shows an adolescent's impulse control and moral judgment aren't fully developed by the age of 17, and claim he was a "poster child for rehabilitation."
Defense attorney Julia Wood urged the three-judge panel Wednesday to broaden the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling to include murders. That 5-4 ruling held that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole if they have not killed anyone, and found they should have a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release."
Wood argued that while the ruling didn't ban courts from sentencing juveniles to a life behind bars, it also "didn't answer the question as to what sentence shouldn't apply in homicide cases."
Prosecutors countered that the high court ruling went to great lengths to specify it only applied in non-homicide cases. John Neiman, the deputy Alabama attorney general, also said the appeals court shouldn't consider the argument because Loggins never brought it to a lower court.
"The right way to view this case is through a procedural lens," Neiman said. "The argument that Mr. Wiggins is making is fundamentally different from the same arguments he made in front of the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals."
Loggins and the three other teens picked up the hitchhiker, Vickie Deblieux, in February 1994 as she was traveling to her mother's home in Louisiana . They took her to a secluded rural area, where prosecutors say Loggins tackled the woman while another teen kicked and stomped her until she died.
Loggins and two others later mutilated the body by cutting off her fingers and thumbs and removing part of a lung. They were arrested after one of the teens was reported to have been showing one of the victim's severed fingers to friends.
The three-judge panel didn't immediately issue a ruling Wednesday, but peppered the two lawyers with questions. Circuit Judge Ed Carnes, though, suggested it is a case that could answer some unsettled parts of the death penalty law.
"This is a very complicated area of law and I'm still amazed after a more than a quarter-century of practicing all the permutations that have come up," said Carnes, who had been the head of Alabama 's capital punishment unit before he joined the court in 1992.