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Attorneys argue to overturn Utah teen murderer's life sentence

Published November 7, 2012 3:05 pm

Courts • Utah's high court discusses whether higher standard needed for life without parole.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Provo • In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, attorneys on Wednesday asked Utah's highest court to overturn the sentence of a man who was 17 when he was convicted in the brutal rape and murder of a worker at a home for troubled youths.

During Robert Cameron Houston's 2007 sentencing hearing, "there wasn't a single shred of evidence that addressed the transient quality of youth," attorney John Pace argued. The jury should have heard from scientists about the growing body of evidence that teenagers are hard-wired for poor impulse control and other issues, he said.

In fact, in the Miller v. Alabama ruling, released in June, the U.S. Supreme Court found life without parole is like the death penalty for young people, Justice Christine Durham said. She pressed a state attorney on whether prosecutors should also be required to prove kids deserve that sentence beyond a reasonable doubt.

"If life without the possibility of parole is the equivalent of death, it seems to me we need [to impose a higher burden of proof]," she said.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Chris Ballard disagreed, arguing the U.S. Supreme Court only said mandatory life without parole sentences are cruel and unusual punishment. In Houston's case, the jury heard plenty about his youth, he said, and decided he nevertheless deserved life without parole for killing 22-year-old Raechale Elton.

Houston was serving a juvenile court sentence for two sexually-motivated knife attacks on relatives when he attacked Elton at the Youth Health Associates in Clearfield. He slit her throat, then tried to break her neck in several different ways and rip out her trachea because she wouldn't stop screaming.

"The general theory that teenagers are reckless and impulsive didn't fit the facts of this case," Ballard said. "He wasn't an impulsive juvenile who got caught up with the wrong friends in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Justice Thomas Lee asked whether a jury really needs to hear from scientists, or if they can use common sense on how youth affects crime.

"I may not know the wiring of my brain, but I know I was a 17-year-old once and I was an idiot," he said.

Elton's family, meanwhile, said Houston should stay behind bars.

"There's no way we can bring her back. We want justice to be served," said her grandmother, Beverly Elton.

"They did not give him the same thing he gave Raechale," said her aunt,Gail Appel. "Short of torture, there's no way they could have."

Houston is one of just two juvenile Utahns sentenced to life without parole. The other, Morris T. Mullins, was 17 when he raped and murdered a 78-year-old woman at her Richfield home in 2001. He took a plea to avoid the death penalty, which the U.S. Supreme Court banned for juveniles four years later.

This is the second time the Houston case has been argued in front of the state high court. The justices stayed the case after it was argued last year, awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The Utah Supreme Court took the case under advisement Wednesday following arguments at Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School. No date was immediately set for their decision.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

@lwhitehurst