Howell v. Tennessee

Karen Howell was convicted under the felony murder doctrine in Tennessee for her involvement with another juvenile and four adult co-defendants in the murder of three individuals. The felony murder doctrine expands accountability for murder to participants in a felony crime even if they did not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that death might result. Despite no evidence demonstrating that Ms. Howell had committed the murders, and findings that she had a “borderline retarded IQ,” and “subordinate[d]” herself to her adult co-defendants, the court sentenced Ms. Howell to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Ms. Howell filed a petition for certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court. Juvenile Law Center along with Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, and Center for Law, Brain and Behavior filed an amicus brief in support of Ms. Howell’s petition. Our brief argued that life without parole sentences should be categorically barred for juveniles, particularly when the juvenile is convicted of felony murder or under a theory of accomplice liability because juveniles have reduced culpability compared to adults and do not have the same capacity to foresee that death might result from participation in a crime.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Ms. Howell's petition for certiorari, leaving the question of the constitutionality of applying the felony murder doctrine to juvenile offenders unaddressed.