Understanding Life Sentences in Missouri
If you or a loved one is serving a life sentence or has been convicted and sentenced with a life sentence, it is essential to understand precisely what this entails and what the end result can look like. This type of punishment is much different than penalties for a municipal charge.
What is a life sentence?
Believe it or not, this is not at all a simple question to answer. The short answer is that the parameters of a life sentence depend on the jurisdiction in which the crime occurred.
Now, let’s take a look at the long answer. In Missouri, a life sentence is considered to be a 30-year prison sentence with one exception. A first-degree murder conviction states that the life sentence imposed is for life imprisonment. So, what’s the difference between a life sentence and life imprisonment? A life sentence consists of a set number of years that the offender will have to spend in prison, while life imprisonment does not have a specific time limit. Simply put, life imprisonment means that the person convicted will die in prison.
In the federal court system, a life sentence is life imprisonment. This means that the person convicted will remain in prison for the rest of their natural life (until their death) unless the sentence is successfully appealed or shortened (commuted) to a fixed term.
Can minors be charged with a life sentence without the possibility of parole?
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Miller v. Alabama that minors cannot be issued life sentences with no chance for parole except in the case of aggravated first-degree murder. This ruling was based on the 8th Amendment, which outlaws cruel and unusual punishment.
What is the point of being charged with multiple life sentences?
At first glance, having a judge do this might seem to make no sense; however, in the state system, remember that life sentences are essentially 30-year sentences, so two life sentences would effectively equal a 60-year sentence.
Except for the case of life sentences without a term limit (such as first-degree murder in Missouri or a federal life sentence), having multiple consecutive life sentences ensures that the person convicted will remain in jail until their natural death even if one conviction is commuted (shortened) or overturned.
What are crimes that are eligible for life sentences?
There are two types of crimes eligible for life sentences – federal and state.
Federal Crimes Eligible for Life Sentences
- First Degree Murder
Other federal crimes could be eligible for life sentences if certain circumstances existed when the crime was committed. For example, a life sentence could be imposed for kidnapping if the victim was a minor who was sexually exploited and the kidnapper used a gun in the abduction.
You will notice that there are far fewer federal crimes eligible for life sentences than state charges because federal crimes are sentenced with the intent that the person convicted serve the entire term of the sentence. No parole options exist in the federal system except for those convicted before November 1, 1987.
Missouri Crimes Eligible for Life (30 Year) Sentences
- Abandonment of Child – 1st Degree – Death of Child
- Abandonment of Child – 2nd Degree – Death of Child
- Abuse or Neglect of a Child – Victim Under 14 Years of Age and Sexual Abuse/Exploitation Occurred
- Abuse or Neglect of a Child – Resulting in Death Under Sec. 568.060.5(2)
- Abuse or Neglect of a Child – Serious Emotional or Physical Injury
- Aiding/Abetting a Person Discharging/Shooting a Firearm At or From a Motor Vehicle – Physical Injury or Death
- Any Person Not Owner/Not in Lawful Control of Approved Container, Allow Release/Escape of Anhydrous Ammonia – Death/Serious Injury
- Arson 1st Degree – Causing Serious Physical Injury or Death
- Arson 1st Degree – Causing Serious Physical Injury or Death as a Result of Fire or Explosion In An Attempt to Produce Methamphetamine
- Assault 1st Degree or Attempt – Serious Physical Injury or Specific Victim
- Assault with Intent to Commit Bus Hijacking with a Weapon
- BWI – Death of 2 or More – 2nd or Subsequent Violation
- BWI – Death of Law Enforcement or Emergency Personnel – 2nd or Subsequent Violation
- BWI – Habitual – 2nd or Subsequent Violation
- Causing Catastrophe
- Child Kidnapping
- Child Molestation – 1st Degree
- Distribution of a Controlled Substance in a Protected Location
- Domestic Assault – 1st Degree – Previous Similar Offense
- Domestic Assault – 1st Degree – Serious Physical Injury
- Domestic Assault 1st Degree – Serious Physical Injury
- DWI – Death of 2 or More – 2nd or Subsequent Violation
- DWI – Death of Law Enforcement or Emergency Personnel – 2nd or Subsequent Violation
- DWI – Habitual – 2nd or Subsequent Violation
- Endangering the Welfare of a Child – 1st Degree – Death of Child – No Sexual Conduct
- Endangering the Welfare of a Child – 1st Degree – Death of Child – Sexual Conduct
- Escape or Attempted Escape from Confinement with Deadly Weapon, Dangerous Instrument or By Holding Hostage
- Escape or Attempted Escape from Custody with Deadly Weapon, Dangerous Instrument or By Holding Hostage
- Financial Exploitation of Elderly/Disabled Person
- Kidnapping – 1st Degree
- Knowingly Infect Another with HIV By Being a Blood, Blood Product, Organ, Tissue, or Sperm Donor
- Manufacture of a Controlled Substance – Physical Injury or Death During Manufacture
- Murder 1st Degree (this is a sentence of life imprisonment, not just 30 years)
- Murder 2nd Degree
- Murder 2nd Degree – Felony Murder – During Perpetration/Attempted Perpetration/Flight from Perpetration of a Felony, a Person Dies
- Murder 2nd Degree – Vehicular – Intoxicated
- Perjury in Criminal Trial to Secure Conviction of Murder
- Planting Bomb or Explosive at or Near Bus or Terminal
- Promote Child Pornography to a Minor 1st Degree
- Recklessly Infect Another with HIV When Offender Is Knowingly Infected With HIV
- Robbery – 1st Degree
- Sexual Exploitation of a Minor Child
- Tamper with a Prescription Drug Order
- Trafficking Drugs – 2nd Degree – Over Statutory Amount
- Trafficking Drugs or Attempt- 1st Degree – Over Statutory Amount
- Unlawful Use of Weapon – Subsection 9 – Shoot At/From Motor Vehicle, At Person, Motor Vehicle or Building, Resulting in Death or Injury
How much time will someone sentenced to life in Missouri actually serve?
As a general rule, the time served after which someone can be eligible for parole is dependent on how many prior convictions someone has:
- One Prior – 40% of the sentence (or until the age of 70 with 30% served)
- Two Priors – 50% of the sentence (or until the age of 70 with 40% served)
- Three or More Priors – 80% of the sentence (or until the age of 70 with 40% served)
Certain specific crimes do not allow a parole hearing until a particular portion of the sentence has been served, no matter how many prior convictions someone has. Those crimes are:
- Armed Criminal Action – 3 years for the first conviction, 5 years for the second conviction, and 10 years for the third conviction
- Aggravated and Chronic DWI Offenders – Aggravated – 60 Days; Chronic – 2 years
- Capital Murder – 50 years
- Discharging of a Firearm in the Commission of a Crime – 10 years for prior offenders
- Enticement of a Child Less than 15 – 5 years
- Failure to Register as a Sex Offender, 3rd Offense – 2 years
- Forcible Rape or Sodomy of a Victim Less than 12 – 30 years
- First Degree Involuntary Manslaughter – 85% of the sentence
- Pharmacy Robbery in the First Degree – 10 years
- Pharmacy Robbery in the Second Degree – 5 years
- Prior or Persistent Domestic Violence Offenders – 6 months
- Sexual Trafficking of a Child Less than 12 – 25 years
And lastly, there are some crimes that are ineligible for parole in Missouri:
- Child Molestation in the First Degree of a Child Less than 12 (when there was severe physical violence or the offender was a repeat offender)
- Discharging of a Firearm in the Commission of a Crime (by persistent offenders)
- Domestic Assault in the First Degree (for persistent domestic violence offenders)
- Drug Trafficking Offenses (in some instances)
- Murder in the First Degree
- Persistent Sexual Offender
- Tampering with Victim/Witness
Life sentences are obviously a huge deal, and especially in states like Missouri, where life doesn’t necessarily mean life, they can be pretty confusing as well. At Twibell Pierson Criminal Law, we have handled many cases with life sentences on the line and have won those cases. Even if convicted, having an experienced defense attorney on your side can help minimize the time served by you or a loved one.