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October 22, 2012

Seventh Circuit panel rejects defendant's Eighth Amendment challenge to crack LWOP sentence

The Seventh Circuit has an interesting little panel ruling today rejecting an Eighth Amendment claim in US v. Ousley, No. 11-2760 (7th Cir. Oct. 22, 2012) (available here). Here is how the opinion starts and ends:

Anthony A. Ousley has an extensive history of peddling illegal drugs.  Caught dealing drugs yet again, Ousley was convicted of four felonies, including one count of possession of more than 50 grams of crack cocaine with the intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1).  On that count, the district court imposed a mandatory life sentence pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A).  On appeal, Ousley contends that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments precludes a mandatory life sentence for dealers who possess a smaller quantity of crack cocaine than the quantity of powder cocaine necessary to trigger a similar sentence for powder cocaine dealers. We affirm....

Ousley questions the continued vitality of these decisions [rejecting similar prior appeals] in light of the Supreme Court’s recent Graham decision addressing the constitutionality of sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a non-homicide crime.  Before Graham, the Supreme Court had adopted categorical rules prohibiting death sentences for certain types of crimes or offenders.... In Graham, the Supreme Court held that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a non-homicide crime constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. 130 S. Ct. at 2030; see also Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2475 (2012) (extending Graham to juvenile murderers). Thus, Graham is the first instance wherein the Supreme Court endorsed a categorical prohibition on a non-capital sentence — life without parole — for a certain type of offender — juveniles.

Ousley argues that Graham relieves us of our obligation to follow Harmelin, Ewing, and our decisions rejecting Eighth Amendment challenges to life sentences imposed pursuant to § 841(b)(1)(A).  According to Ousley, Graham empowers us to consider in the first instance whether to adopt a categorical prohibition on mandatory life sentences without parole for crack cocaine dealers who possess an amount of crack cocaine less than the amount of powder cocaine necessary to trigger a mandatory life sentence for powder cocaine dealers.  Ousley urges us to embrace this categorical rule based on the purported national consensus against crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparities.

Congress has addressed any national consensus issue in the Fair Sentencing Act. And this court recently held that Graham and Miller do not abrogate Harmelin.  United States v. Cephus, 684 F.3d 703, 709 (7th Cir. 2012) (“Neither opinion overrules Harmelin; both, indeed, distinguish it explicitly. Our defendants were not juveniles and their crimes were more serious than the crime in Harmelin.”).  Moreover, “[e]ven if we thought Harmelin inconsistent with Graham and Millerand likely to be overruled, the Supreme Court has . . . told the lower courts in no uncertain terms to leave the overruling of its precedents to it.” Id.

Therefore, we conclude that Harmelin, Ewing, and our precedent unmistakably foreclose Ousley’s Eighth Amendment challenge to § 841(b)(1)(A). The district court did not commit legal error — much less plain error. 

October 22, 2012 at 03:55 PM | Permalink

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