Vanderbilt Law Review

Article Title

Life-Without-Parole: An Alternative to Death or Not Much of a Life at All?


In 1980 Harlin Philip Seritt, Jr. received a sentence of life-without-parole from the state of Alabama. After serving less than two years of a sentence intended to incarcerate Seritt for the rest of his natural life, he commented that "I'm not going to sit in here twenty or thirty years. I'd just as soon be dead. ...I'd make them shoot me off the fence." As of March 1989 Seritt remained in Alabama's Holman Prison, still serving time without having attempted an escape.' For Seritt, life-without-parole means a life of drudgery behind bars, made both secure and dangerous by the knowledge that he has little left to lose. In 1960 Raymond Eugene Brown killed three of his female relatives. At a time when the only penalty options for a murderer in Alabama were a regular life sentence and death, the jury sentenced the first-time, fourteen-year old offender to three life terms. Consistent with Alabama's parole statutes, Brown became eligible for parole in 1971 and received it in 1973.' Alabama revoked his parole between 1980 and 1986 because Brown assaulted his landlady, but this "walking time bomb," who had attacked four women without provocation and murdered three, was released again in 1986. In 1988 Alabama convicted Brown of the brutal stabbing murders of a woman and her nine-year old daughter and sentenced him to die.' He joins Seritt at Holman Prison, but he is on Alabama's death row. In Brown's case the life-without-parole sanction might have saved three lives. If Brown had been sentenced to life-without-parole in 1960,his two 1988 victims likely would be alive, and Brown would not be facing death or the long, tedious, and expensive process of appealing his impending execution through the state and federal courts during his years on death row. Neither Seritt nor Brown have particularly attractive futures, but at least Seritt's punishment is sure and its cost is not measured in terms of others' lives. The two cases are not atypical of the present capital sentencing situation in the United States.

The 1972 Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia'° inaugurated anew era of capital sentencing and punishment in the United States."By determining that Georgia's imposition of the death penalty was cruel and unusual because of its capriciousness, the Court left the federal and state governments with three options for punishing especially heinous offenders, particularly murderers. First, legislatures could re-vise capital sentencing statutes to eliminate capriciousness by enacting procedural safeguards that would enable the laws to pass constitutional muster. Second, criminal courts could fall back on standard life sentences, although the ready availability of parole made this alternative unattractive when perpetrators of especially diabolical crimes

needed punishment. Third, governments could devise another punishment alternative.This Note will discuss the relatively recent development and cur-rent prevalence of one alternative: the life sentence without benefit of parole, commonly called life-without-parole (LWOP). Life-without-parole is the penultimate penalty, meaning in theory the incarceration of convicts for their natural lives without the possibility of release on pa-role. In practice, LWOP generally means what it says, although various states do retain some release mechanisms for LWOP inmates, like executive commutation or a set term of years. The idea of jailing individuals for the rest of their lives is at least as old in the Western legal tradition as the Tower of London or the Bastille. In the United States, however,such a penalty historically has not been particularly popular. The constitutional system of government in the United States never has allowed persons to be summarily locked away. The American concept of prisons traditionally has been that they exist for rehabilitation and re-lease as much as for incarceration.'