The Texas school shooter can't get the death penalty

Getty Images/Scott OlsenCrime scene tape is stretched across the front of Santa Fe High School on May 19, 2018.
  • The suspected Santa Fe high-school shooter cannot be sentenced to death or life in prison without possibility of parole.
  • That’s because the suspect is just 17 years old.
  • Two recent Supreme Court rulings have found it unconstitutional to impose death or mandatory life sentences on defendants who are under the age of 18.

The teenager who allegedly gunned down 10 of his high-school classmates and teachers in a grisly rampage in Santa Fe, Texas, on Friday will never get the death penalty or a mandatory life sentence.

Though the suspected shooter, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, has confessed to the massacre and potentially faces charges from both local and federal prosecutors, the maximum sentence he’s eligible to receive is a life sentence with parole eligibility after 40 years.

The reason is Pagourtzis’ young age. He is just 17 years old, and two major Supreme Court decisions within the last two decades have ruled it unconstitutional to sentence a defendant to death, or impose mandatory life sentences if he or she was under 18 at the time of the crime.

The first major ruling came in 2005, in the Roper v. Simmons case. The justices ruled in a 5-4 decision that sentencing a person under 18 years of age to death violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment against inflicting “cruel and unusual punishments.”

The opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that people under 18 cannot truly be “classified among the worst offenders,” because research has shown that their maturity, decision-making skills, and characters are all underdeveloped and leave them prone to “reckless behaviour” and “impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.”

The second major decision came in the 2012 Miller v. Alabama case, which ruled that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life in prison without possibility for parole. The justices’ reasoning was much the same as it was for Roper v. Simmons – they ruled that mandatory life sentences are unconstitutionally too harsh of punishments for children.

“By making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority opinion.

But even with those two rulings, it’s possible Pagourtzis could remain in prison for the rest of his life if he’s convicted. It would eventually be up to a parole board to decide if he could successfully reintegrate into society.

Pagourtzis is currently being held without bond at the Galveston County Jail on charges of capital murder and aggravated assault on a peace officer.

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