Case study Jones v. Mississippi

Juvenile Life With Out Parole sentences are unheard-of across the rest of the world. Today, the United States is the only country that allows this practice—it is banned everywhere else and prohibited by human-rights treaties that most other nations have signed on to.

The background to the case

When he was 14, Brett Jones moved from Florida to Mississippi to escape his dysfunctional family life and a stepfather who allegedly emotionally and physically abused him from the time he was about 10.

Jones and his mother could not have foreseen then, in the summer of 2004, that he would end up in a far more sinister situation than the one he was fleeing, one that would forever change the course of his life and their family.

Now, 16 years later, Jones is at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case that could affect the fate of hundreds of juvenile offenders across the country sentenced to die in prison.

In court hearings leading up to this case, Jones and his younger brother testified their stepfather, who married their mother in 1999, would grab them by the neck, choke them, and beat them with a belt buckle till the skin broke.

Their stepfather also used a Ping-Pong paddle to beat the boys and called them by derogatory terms like “little bastards” and “little motherf------,” Jones’ mother, Enette Wigginton, told the court.

“Me and my little brother, man, we were terrorized half the time just living there. You feel like walking through the living room when my stepdad was home was almost like dodging bullets,” said Jones, who like his mother, began cutting himself at an early age.

The animosity between him and his stepfather intensified after Jones said he missed a curfew, and his stepfather lashed out at him. He grabbed him by the throat, “pulled a belt” and threatened to “beat the s---” out of him.

This time, Jones fought back. He swung at his stepfather, “splitting” his ear, which bled “horribly,” Wigginton said. The police arrested Jones for domestic violence, and he was required to take an anger management class.

Shortly afterward, Jones went to live with his paternal grandparents in Shannon, Mississippi. Jones welcomed the move and said he was looking forward to starting high school, even though it meant changing schools again.

He had done plenty of that already. Wigginton said the family moved nine times in four or five years. “We moved around so much that the school lost all my records, and I had to repeat the seventh grade,” Jones said.

While in Mississippi, he enjoyed spending time with his cousins in a “normal” household, he said. “It was completely stress-free compared to what I was going through in Florida.”

But his newly found bliss came to a devastating end about two months later.

On Aug. 9, 2004, less than a month after Jones turned 15, his grandfather caught him in his bedroom watching television with his girlfriend, Michelle Austin, and ordered her out of the house. Austin had run away from her home in Florida and was secretly living with Jones as well as in a nearby abandoned fish restaurant.

Jones testified his grandfather Bertis confronted him later that day about the episode when he was in the kitchen making a sandwich. Jones said he “sassed” his grandfather, at which point the heated exchange escalated into a fight. He said Bertis pushed him, and he pushed back, then Bertis “swung at him.” Cornered, Jones said he threw the knife he had in his hand from making a sandwich, stabbing his grandfather. When Bertis continued to come at him, the record shows Jones grabbed a different knife and stabbed his grandfather eight times.

Jones said he tried to revive Bertis with CPR. When that failed, Jones tried to cover up the crime by dragging his grandfather’s body into the laundry room and using a hose to clean up the blood. He also “threw his shirt in the garbage under the sink,” and “attempted to cover up the blood spots in the carport by pulling his grandfather’s car over them.”

Jones said he called 911 and was waiting on an ambulance but panicked when the police arrived and left the scene in search of his grandmother.

At trial, Austin, who was charged as an accessory after the fact to murder, testified that Jones threatened to “hurt his granddaddy,” but under cross-examination, she acknowledged she was lying “to keep from going to the penitentiary.”

Jones told jurors he was afraid and stabbed his grandfather in self-defense. Unconvinced, they convicted him of murder. Under Mississippi’s parole statute, he was automatically sentenced to life without parole.


For nearly two decades, the Supreme Court has established more leniency toward children convicted of violent crimes, in line with the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders are unconstitutional, because they violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the majority opinion, said: “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”

The court stopped short of banning all life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, but it said juveniles facing such a harsh punishment, which is equivalent to the death penalty, are entitled to a sentencing process that considers the unique circumstances of their case including their age at the time of the offense, family and home environment, the extent of their participation in the homicide and their possibility of rehabilitation.

The court stressed that a life-without-parole sentence should be reserved for the “rare” juvenile homicide offender who is “permanently incorrigible” and cannot be rehabilitated. The court reasoned that children have a greater capacity to change as they mature, so they are less culpable than adults. In 2016, the court reiterated its position in Montgomery v. Louisiana when it ruled Miller should be retroactive.

These groundbreaking decisions gave Jones and other offenders serving mandatory life-without-parole sentences for a homicide they committed before they were 18, the right to have a new hearing to determine whether their sentences were permissible under the constitution.


At Jones’ resentencing hearing, his grandmother, mother, brother and cousin testified on his behalf. The hearing transcript, reviewed by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, shows Jones’ family corroborated his story about living with an abusive stepfather and a mother with a long history of mental illness who cut herself and abused alcohol.

The family described Jones as “smart,” a “good kid.” His mother said, “he was on the honor roll most of the time. His teachers all loved him. He was an excellent student.” However, Jones also struggled with mental illness.

Jones said at his resentencing that he sometimes heard voices, and he would cut himself with knives, razor blades and box cutters. He said he was prescribed medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and two antidepressants when he was about 13, and an antipsychotic medication around January 2004 when he was 14. Jones and his mother said he abruptly stopped taking all his medication against medical advice when he moved to Mississippi.

The state pointed out in its argument to the U.S. Supreme Court that, “Jones did not introduce any medical records or offer the testimony of any mental health professional.”

When he first entered the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, where he was imprisoned from the age of 15 to 21, Jones testified he tried to kill himself and was on suicide watch for a few months. But after seeing a “psych doctor,” he said he learned how to cope and “it was better being in prison” than living with his stepfather.

Jerome Benton, a former unit manager at Walnut Grove, testified at Jones’ hearing, describing him as “a real nice kid” who sought out opportunities to work. He mopped floors and would do whatever was asked of him. “He was a very good employee,” and someone he looked upon like a son.

Gardner let Jones make a final statement following the hearing but only after already announcing his decision to resentence Jones to life without parole. By doing so, Levick said, the judge “diminished his humanity” and the value of what Jones had to say.

Nevertheless, Jones seized the opportunity to plead for mercy and a chance for redemption. “I’ve pretty much taken every avenue that I could possibly take in prison to rehabilitate myself,” Jones said. “I took anger management in prison. I’ve taken trades, got my GED (and) stayed in touch with my family.

“I’m not the same person I was when I was 15. Minors do have the ability to change their mentality as they get older … all I can do is throw myself at the mercy of the court and in front of the Holy Spirit.”

Gardner did not address Jones’ potential for rehabilitation before making his ruling. Although he acknowledged Jones “grew up in a troubled circumstance” with his mother “gone frequently for extended periods,” the judge downplayed Jones’ dysfunctional family life: “The conditions in that home are unremarkable except for the apparent unsettled lifestyle and an incident in which the defendant and his stepfather had a confrontation resulting from defendant’s failure to return home at the time set by the stepfather.”

The Supreme Court's decision

In a 6–3 decision with all six conservative justices upholding the life sentence without parole for Jones, the Court ruled that the states have discretionary ability to hold juvenile offenders to life sentences without parole without having to make a separate assessment of their incorrigibility. In other words the Supreme Court said 'it's not our decision'.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote in his opinion that "Determining the proper sentence in such a case raises profound questions of morality and social policy. The States, not the federal courts, make those broad moral and policy judgments in the first instance when enacting their sentencing laws. And state sentencing judges and juries then determine the proper sentence in individual cases in light of the facts and circumstances of the offense, and the background of the offender."