A Lawrence County man who was 14 in 2003 when he beat, burned and killed a man was sentenced for the second time to life without parole Tuesday in a high-profile case that caused the U.S. Supreme Court to change how juveniles are sentenced.
At a virtual re-sentencing hearing, Judge Mark Craig said Evan Miller, now 32, will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Miller, when he was 16, was convicted of capital murder in the July 16, 2003, death of Cole Cannon, 52, of the Five Points community in Lawrence County. Miller was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, which at the time was the only option in Alabama for a juvenile convicted of capital murder.
That changed in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court considered Miller’s appeal and ruled that a mandatory sentence of life without parole violated the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The case was remanded for the trial court to consider the juvenile’s age and life factors instead of making life in prison without parole automatic.
Craig on Tuesday ruled Miller, despite his young age and abusive upbringing, knew what he was doing when he committed the “heinous act.”
“He was the principal aggressor in the death of Mr. Cannon,” the judge said.
Jodie Fuller, one of Cannon’s daughters who is now a detective with the Decatur Police Department, was one of two members of her family who listened to the virtual hearing.
“We’re very pleased with the ruling,” Fuller said afterward. “It feels like a burden has been lifted off us. The judge did a very thorough job. I was so relieved when he read the sentence.”
Fuller said she was 16 when her father was murdered. “(Dad) missed out on a lot,” she said. “Weddings, his six grandchildren.” He would be 70 years old now.
Craig said the testimony that placed Miller standing over Cannon, who had been beaten with a baseball bat in his trailer at the Country Living Trailer Park in the Five Points community, was “too horrific” to ignore.
During the original trial in 2006, a witness testified Miller told Cannon, “I am God, I’ve come to take your life.”
Craig called the phrase some of “the most chilling words I have heard.”
“Had you not made the decisions that night, Mr. Cannon, in my view, would still be alive,” Craig said. “You showed cunning, not clumsy rash thinking.”
Craig said testimony showed Miller beat Cannon again and then returned to the trailer, ignored Cannon’s pleas for help and “coldly lit the fuse” that burned the trailer and Cannon, still alive, in it.
Colby Smith, who was 16 at the time of the murder, assisted in the slaying and was convicted of murder and is serving life with a possibility of parole at a state prison in Clio.
After beating Cannon with a baseball bat, according to testimony, they took valuable baseball cards and $350 from his wallet.
Wearing a long-sleeved white T-shirt under a burgundy polo shirt in the livestreamed video from St. Clair Prison in Springville, Miller showed little emotion when Craig announced his sentence. Craig could have given Miller life with the possibility of parole after he had served 30 years.
Miller was represented at Tuesday’s virtual hearing by Alicia D’Addario, of the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery.
Craig said he read the trial transcripts several times and “didn’t have the luxury of hearing live witnesses at the trial.” He said Judge Philip Reich, who presided over the jury trial, retired in 2009.
Craig said he closely reviewed all exhibits and looked at Miller’s “hallmark features of youth, immaturity, impetuosity and the failure to appreciate risk” in considering his decision. Miller was 14 years, 256 days old when he killed Cannon, his neighbor at the trailer court.
While other juveniles serving life sentences have seen their sentences reduced under the Supreme Court ruling on Miller’s case and a later ruling that made the decision retroactive, Miller’s case had been pending for years without a decision.
In the 2012 opinion, the Supreme Court pointed to factors that the judge should have considered during the original sentencing of Miller.
“Miller’s stepfather physically abused him; his alcoholic and drug-addicted mother neglected him; he had been in and out of foster care as a result; and he had tried to kill himself four times, the first when he should have been in kindergarten,” the court wrote in the majority opinion.