State v. Keef




Montana Supreme Court

Citation and Year

403 Mont. 1 (2021)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

Mont. Const., Art. II, §§ 15, 22; MCA Section 46-18-101(2)

Nature of Case

Steven Keefe was tried and convicted as an adult for a triple homicide committed when he was 17 years old. He received a total sentence of three consecutive life terms plus 50 years, without the possibility of parole. At a resentencing hearing in 2019, more than 20 years after Keefe was sent to prison, the district court resentenced him to three consecutive life sentences.

On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court said that the district court’s error was in refusing to consider the evidence of Keefe’s rehabilitation after his offense. The court vacated his sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing in district court.


Under Miller v. Alabama, resentencing judges must consider evidence of rehabilitation progress. However, the Court declined to categorically bar life without parole sentences for children convicted of homicide.

Notable Dissents / Concurrences

Chief Justice Michael McGraff concurred in the reversal of Keefe’s sentence, but dissented from the new sentencing requirement. McGraff concluded that rationales underlying the United States Supreme Court cases and the Montana Constitution offered stronger protections for children. He argued that the Montana Constitution, with its “explicit protections” for children in Article II, § 15, should compel the court to ban all life without parole sentences for children.

McGraff specifically pointed to the burden that vulnerable children faced in establishing “the unprovable, but very likely correct, proposition” that they are not irredeemable. He reasoned from Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to ban life without parole sentences for children convicted of non-homicide offenses, and said that Graham’s analysis about children should apply equally in homicide cases. “The Graham Court found that the predictions of juvenile development were too error prone, that sentencing courts faced with brutal crimes would give insufficient weight to the mitigating factors of youth, that youthful offenders are inherently less culpable and more disadvantaged in criminal proceedings than adults, and that, ultimately, the only reliable way to to discover whether a juvenile has the potential to reform is to afford the individual the opportunity to demonstrate as much.”

Given the rationales about child development embraced by Graham, McGraff concluded that the Montana Constitution, with its “explicit protections” for children in Article II, § 15, should compel the Court to ban all life without parole sentences for children.

Article II, § 15 extends all fundamental rights to children under 18, including the state constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments in Article II, § 22. McGraff reasoned that Section 15 offered broader protections for children, analyzing a discussion from the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention that said protections could be enhanced where “the special status of minors demands it.” McGraff concluded that denying a child “any hope of life outside prison walls” merits broader protection for a child’s special status. In fact, McGraff said, it is nearly impossible for a court to accurately predict a child’s prospects for rehabilitation. In Steven Keefe’s case, McGraff noted, it would not have been unreasonable to find Keefe to be beyond rehabilitation as a 17-year-old with “violent, anti-social traits.” And yet the intervening years would prove that conclusion to be wrong.

McGraff went further, saying that even if accurate predictions could be made about a teenager’s nature, life without parole sentences are inappropriate for any child. Under Montana law, criminal sentences are intended “to inflict punishment proportionate with the crime, protect the public, restore victims, and encourage rehabilitation and reintegration of the offender into society.” Due to Keefe’s diminished culpability as a child offender and the fact that his sentence had already served these ends, denial of parole would serve no further legitimate penological purpose.