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The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal by a convict who was one of the first juveniles sentenced in Utah to life without parole.
The high court issued an order on Monday denying a request by Robert Cameron Houston who brutally killed a Clearfield youth counselor in 2006 when he was 17 to address the question of whether it is always unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without parole.
In a deal with prosecutors, Houston, now 27, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder in the slaying of 22-year-old Raechale Elton and charges of aggravated sexual assault and rape were dropped. After a sentencing hearing, a 2nd District jury voted 11-1 for a term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the teen, who was tried as an adult.
After he was sentenced, Houston got a new lawyer, who questioned the constitutionality of the term and contended the jury did not receive proper guidance on sentencing. The Utah Attorney General's Office responded that only mandatory life-without-parole sentences are cruel and unusual punishment and that the punishment fit the vicious crime.
The Utah Supreme Court upheld the sentence in February 2015, saying in a 4-1 ruling that the sentence was constitutional and also rejecting the argument that Houston received ineffective assistance from his defense attorneys. Justice Christine Durham, the lone dissenter, wrote that the sentence was unconstitutionally disproportionate for a juvenile and that Houston should have received the only other term available at the time of his 2007 sentencing, which was 20 years to life behind bars.
A team of University of Utah law students and their professor then filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
According to court documents, Elton gave Houston a ride on Feb. 15, 2006, from a residential treatment center to his independent living home because it was snowing and she did not want the youth to have to walk the four blocks in bad weather.
When they arrived at the home, Houston grabbed Elton, held a knife to her throat and raped her, according to the documents. When Elton would not stop screaming, the teen stabbed her in the side of the neck and slit her throat, then tried to break her neck and rip out her trachea, the documents say.
Houston got into Elton's car and sped off, crashing into a house in what he claimed was an attempt to kill himself.
In addition to Houston, there is one other Utah offender who is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a murder committed while still a juvenile, according to the Utah Attorney General's Office.
Morris T. Mullins was 17 when he killed 78-year-old Amy Davis in her Richfield home on May 2, 2001. He pleaded guilty to aggravated murder to avoid the possibility of the death penalty, which the U.S. Supreme Court banned for juveniles four years later, and prosecutors dropped a rape charge.