USA: Clemency urged in Louisiana child life without parole case

The Louisiana authorities should grant clemency to a woman serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for a crime committed when she was a child, Amnesty International said today as the state Pardon Board meets in Baton Rouge. Christi Cheramie, 33, was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1994 after pleading guilty to the second-degree murder of her fiancé’s great-aunt earlier that year. She was 16 at the time. If the pardon board denies her application for a clemency hearing, she would have to wait seven years before applying again.“Christi Cheramie has already spent more than half her life in prison, where she has been described as a ‘model inmate’ who completed her education and is now teaching others,” said Susan Lee, Amnesty International’s Americas Programme Director. “Life without parole is incompatible with basic principles of juvenile justice requiring states to prioritize the child’s reintegration into society. The Louisiana Pardon Board has an opportunity to give her a second chance.”The Pardon Board is holding its monthly meeting on 23-24 January in the state capital Baton Rouge, where it reviews applications from inmates for clemency hearings. If the board were to grant Christi Cheramie a hearing, it would consider her case before making a non-binding recommendation to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Amnesty International has already called on Governor Jindal to grant clemency to Christi Cheramie, to ensure that her sentence is commuted in line with international standards.“We are not saying that children should be excused for their crimes, but rather that government authorities should address the question of accountability in ways that recognize a child offender’s lack of maturity and capacity for rehabilitation,” said Susan Lee. Christi Cheramie’s original trial was transferred directly from juvenile to adult court, and the authorities failed to consider factors such as her history of mental health issues after being sexually abused as a child.Christi Cheramie pleaded guilty to the murder charge before her trial started, a decision she later explained was taken out of fear of being sentenced to death if the trial went ahead. In 2001, she sought to have her guilty plea withdrawn, testifying that she had not understood her rights or the trial proceedings when she pleaded guilty. Her application was denied. In November 2011, Amnesty International’s report “This is where I’m going to be when I die” highlighted Christi Cheramie’s case as well as those of two other inmates currently serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed when they were children.  There are more than 2,500 such cases across the USA, thought to be the only country where this sentence is imposed on children. The USA and Somalia are the only two countries not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which bans life without parole sentences for crimes committed by under 18-year-olds But Amnesty International notes that the USA is obliged not to work against the Convention’s purpose, as it has signed the treaty. “Sentencing children to life imprisonment without parole for crimes committed by children is a clear violation of international law, and it is surely time for the USA to end its isolation on this issue,” said Susan Lee. “We urge state governments across the USA – including Louisiana – to enact legislation to eliminate life without parole sentences for children.”