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Missouri high court upholds life sentences for older teens

The Missouri Supreme Court has ruled against a Missouri man imprisoned for killing his grandparents at age 19 who had argued that the ban on life sentences for juveniles should also apply to older teenagers.

David Barnett, a suburban St. Louis man who now is 43, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for the 1996 murders.

He asked Missouri judges to expand on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that mandatory life sentences without a chance at parole for juveniles are unconstitutional.

But Missouri Supreme Court judges in a unanimous opinion wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court defined juveniles as teenagers under 18 years old, and they must follow the high court’s decision.

Barnett’s public defender, Rosemary Percival, in an email said the ruling was “disappointing” and that “if anyone deserves parole, it’s David.”

“Any jury, after hearing about the horrible abuse and neglect David suffered, his attempts to get help, and his excellent prison behavior, would give him the chance for parole,” Percival said. “No teenager should be doomed to die in prison without even a chance to show why he deserves to be released someday.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that teens should be treated differently than adult offenders at sentencing because they’re less mature, prone to manipulation and capable of change. The court found that all but the rare juvenile lifer whose crime reflects “permanent incorrigibility” should have a chance to argue for freedom one day.

Missouri judges wrote that it’s up to the Missouri Legislature to decide whether to “expand the definition of juvenile to include offenders older than 18 years of age.”

Missouri is one of just five states — along with Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Texas — that begins adult court jurisdiction at age 17 rather than 18.

But Missouri and Michigan have enacted laws that will raise the adult court age to 18 starting in 2021. Missouri’s law is contingent on the Legislature appropriating money to provide the expanded juvenile services.

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