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September 4, 2012

Interesting report on how Florida prosecutor approaches Graham and Miller

Over the long weekend, the Tampa Tribune had this interesting article about the impact and import of Graham and Miller for Florida's juvenile offender.  The piece is headlined "Courts grappling with juveniles' life sentences," but I found most notable the discussion of a Florida prosecutor's approach to Graham and Miller in light of Florida law and procedure:

Prison inmates who committed murder when they were juveniles have a chance to one day walk free because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned automatic life sentences without parole for juvenile killers.  Now the courts have to figure out what to do with about 15 Hillsborough County convicts and hundreds in Florida.

The full impact of the June ruling — as well as a decision last year that barred all life without parole sentences for juveniles who commit crimes other than murder — remains to be seen. In answering the question about the constitutionality of such sentences, the court created a slew of other questions about what sentences would be considered appropriate.

"The only way we can get further clarification of what is permissible and what is not is through trial and error," said Michael Sinacore, felony chief for the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office.  "We have to have cases where sentences get imposed, and the sentences get appealed and the appellate courts will weigh in on whether whatever was done is proper."...

"With Graham, we're getting a pretty good feel for how the courts are treating it, but the Florida Supreme Court has not weighed in yet," Sinacore said.  "The U.S. Supreme Court has not weighed in on what term of years would be appropriate. That could take years, if ever."...

Sinacore said the position of his office in these non-homicide cases is to calculate the life expectancy of defendants then advocate for a sentence that takes parole and prison credit into account, allowing a defendant to become eligible for release a few years before the end of his life.

The office takes a different approach in the homicide cases addressed in the June Supreme Court decision, Miller vs. Alabama.  In those cases, the state attorney and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi maintain that state law reverts to what it was before life without parole became the automatic sentence on May 1, 1994.

So, defendants convicted of first-degree murder for killings committed when they were juveniles would have their sentences become life with the possibility of parole after 25 years.  Therefore, there would be no need to hold new sentencing hearings for them, if this position is upheld by the courts....

In a quirk of the law, this would not work with defendants convicted of second-degree murder, Sinacore said.  "Under the former law you could not get life without parole for a first-degree murder, but you could for a second-degree murder and for a non-homicide offense."  Sinacore said this happened because of the way the law developed with the death penalty.  The 25-year parole requirement for first-degree convicted murderers who did not get a death sentence was an enhancement.  At the time, defendants convicted of other crimes could be eligible for parole earlier, at the judge's discretion, or they could be required to serve life without parole.

"The 25-year parole eligibility was specific to capital offenses, which would be capital sexual battery and capital murder," Sinacore said.  "Second-degree murder was a life felony; somebody could be sentenced to life in the judge's discretion.  So if the judge used discretion, as opposed to a mandatory sentencing for life, you could get life without parole even under the previous version of the statute."

Because of that, he said, the Miller decision means juvenile killers convicted of second-degree murder will be entitled to new sentencing hearings "unless by some bizarre chance, the judge, at the time of sentencing, actually considered the status of the juvenile's development and how they would continue to develop in the future and all the issues that the Supreme Court says you have to take into consideration -- the maturity of the child basically."

September 4, 2012 at 07:23 AM | Permalink

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