Despite a succession of Supreme Court cases establishing that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment except in extremely rare cases Graham v. Florida (2010), Miller v. Alabama (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), over 1,000 people sentenced as juveniles are still in prison serving life sentences with no chance of parole. To spotlight the injustice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole, Milbank LLP sponsored the production of a video on this issue.
“We need to take a look at young people and treat them as young people…they have this incredible capacity for change,” says Aaron Clark-Rizzio, Executive Director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, in the video. “Not only was life sentencing without parole morally wrong, it didn’t make sense as a justice system to keep doing this.”
“So often, these individuals aren’t given a fair shake at life, only to find their lives literally taken away,” said partner Aaron Renenger, who is working on a number of cases in Virginia involving juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole. “This is why these cases are particularly harrowing. Over 1,000 people are still imprisoned for a similar set of circumstances to my client’s, and more work needs to be done.”
In early 2018, after hearing prominent civil rights lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson speak about juvenile sentencing issues, Milbank’s partnership was moved to become more involved in legal advocacy efforts in this area. Milbank worked with the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization founded by Mr. Stevenson, and the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, to identify and assist individuals with cases in Virginia and Louisiana.
Milbank is currently working on four cases in Louisiana and six nonhomicide cases in Virginia that involve obtaining the possibility of parole for clients given life sentences as juveniles. These advocacy efforts most recently culminated in the successful representation of Edward Eugene Simms, a Virginia man who was granted parole and released from prison in January after spending over three decades incarcerated for non-violent offenses he committed at the age of 16.
As discussed in the video, Mr. Simms was tried as an adult and sentenced to six life sentences plus 124 years without the possibility of parole. In the video, he recalls the day of the sentencing: “I’m a sixteen-year-old…sentenced to fifty-to-life for this and fifty-to-life for that – I only have one life.”
Emphasizing Mr. Simms’s exemplary behavior and his suitability for parole, the Milbank team submitted a packet of support to the Virginia Parole Board advocating for Mr. Simms’s release. The pro bono team also obtained a letter of support for Mr. Simms from Virginia’s Senator Scott Surovell. Weeks after Mr. Simms’s release, on February 24, 2020, Virginia joined 22 other states and the District of Columbia in passing legislation ending life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Individuals serving such sentences will be eligible for parole after serving 20 years, further highlighting the need for continued legal advocacy on behalf of juvenile offenders.
“It’s important for people at firms like Milbank to come in and provide representation for folks who need it,” said Equal Justice Initiative Senior Attorney and Director of Development Jacqueline Jones-Peace. “You could have a model record, but you need attorneys to help you put together a plan that is compelling.”
Milbank Chairman Scott A. Edelman added: “Milbank is thrilled that we were able to assist our client in obtaining his freedom after so many years. Vindication of constitutional rights requires vigorous legal representation. This case illustrates what pro bono work can accomplish.”
The Milbank team involved in the Edward Simms case also included associates John Estep and Emily Glaser and former associate Caroline Vorce. The video was shot and produced by Eighty Six Media and directed by John Spinnato.
View the full video on YouTube by clicking here.