Alabama Court of Appeals Reverses LWOP Sentence for Defendant Who Committed Offenses at Age 17

Above: Defendant Debra Bracewell — Image Source: Star-News

On December 16, 2020, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama found that a trial court had abused its discretion by considering the fact that an individual committed murder at age 17 to be an aggravating, rather than a mitigating, factor and reversed Debra Bracewell’s sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

In 1997, when Bracewell was 17 years old, she was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to LWOP. She was resentenced to discretionary LWOP in 2017 despite the existence of Miller v. Alabama. The sentencing court explained that Miller v. Alabama prohibited LWOP for juveniles “unless there’s evidence that they are so terrible there’s no hope for them in modern society,” and that because Bracewell was only eight months away from age 18 and was the one who killed the victim, she did deserve this sentence. Bracewell appealed.

In addition to her age, Bracewell cited several other mitigating factors at her trial. Bracewell “grew up in the worst situation imaginable” and suffered physical and sexual abuse throughout her childhood and adolescence. She also presented evidence that she was intellectually disabled.

At Bracewell’s resentencing in 2017, the court had noted that Bracewell’s age and its proximity to the line of 18 years old “weighed heavily” towards the decision to sentence her to LWOP. Bracewell alleged that the sentencing court “erroneously used her age as a fact in aggravation supporting a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole instead of a fact in mitigation supporting parole eligibility and, in doing so, ignored the hallmark features of youth.”

The appeals court agreed with Bracewell’s argument, saying, “a juvenile’s age cannot be used as a fact in aggravation to support a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” Because of this, the appeals court found that the trial court abused its discretion, reversed Bracewell’s LWOP sentence, and remanded to the trial court for resentencing.

One judge concurred and recommended that Bracewell be resentence to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. A different judge dissented, saying that the trial court respected its discretion when it sentenced Bracewell to LWOP, as Miller prohibits only mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles and Bracewell’s circumstances are severe enough to warrant a discretionary LWOP sentence, even given her age as a mitigating factor.

Key words: LWOP, Miller v. Alabama, adolescent brain, Alabama

Citation: Bracewell v. State, 2020 WL 7382039

This post is the 36th post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.

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at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

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