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November 18, 2012

Does Miller also render presumptive juve LWOP sentencing unconstitutional?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new SCOTUSblog post by Lyle Denniston under the headline "A puzzle on juvenile sentencing."  Here are excerpts from Lyle's very lengthy post:

Most of the time, when the Supreme Court sends a case back to a lower court for a further look, the task for the lower court is clear.  But the Justices have left the California courts with little guidance on what to do now with a case involving a teenager convicted for his role in gang-related, drive-by shootings that left three people dead six years ago.  The case involves a youth, seventeen at the time, who received three sentences of life without parole — to run one after the other — plus added prison terms.

Depending upon how California courts react, the case of Michael Angelo Mauricio of Compton, California, might well lead to added protection for minors convicted of murder. The case is Mauricio v. California (docket 11-10139). 

What is at issue in his case is what the Supreme Court meant last month, when it ordered California’s Second District Court of Appeal to reconsider the sentences for Mauricio, focusing on the Court’s decision last Term in Miller v. Alabama (docket 10-9646). The Miller decision barred life-without-parole sentences for minors convicted of murder, but appeared to be limited to cases in which that sentence was mandatory. The puzzlement in Mauricio’s case is that, under California law, life without parole was not mandatory....

Mauricio was convicted ... of three counts of first-degree murder, with special circumstances that led to added punishment.  He was sentenced to three consecutive life-without-parole sentences, plus three consecutive terms of twenty-five years to life. Upholding those sentences, the Second District Court of Appeal last year rejected Mauricio’s legal claim that it was unconstitutional, because of his youth, for the judge to opt for life-without-parole sentences when the judge had the discretion under state law to instead impose twenty-five-to-life sentences.

The appeals court said that, under California law, life without parole was the “presumptive punishment” for murder by a minor in the circumstances involved in Mauricio’s crimes, but that the law also said that, “at the discretion of the court,” the sentence could be twenty-five to life....

The Court majority’s opinion in Miller repeatedly stressed that it was dealing with LWOP as a mandatory matter.... But what did [the Court's] admonitions mean, in the face of a state appeals court ruling that had said explicitly that the sentencing judge had, in fact, taken Mauricio’s youth into account, had examined his role in the murders, and had weighed whether his case deserved the more severe punishment of LWOP? The remand order did not say. Still, the case was sent back to the state court, leaving it to figure out how to react.

Because the Supreme Court in Miller referenced an Eighth Amendment capital sentencing jurisprudence that seems to preclude any presumptive death penalty scheme, I am inclined to believe there are five votes to extend the Miller ruling beyond mandatory sentencing schemes to presumptive sentencing schemes. Of course, the remand in Mauricio is not a holding to this effect, but the remand certainly does hint that Miller is not the end of SCOTUS development of Eighth Amendment limits on severe sentencing systems for juveniles.

November 18, 2012 at 11:28 PM | Permalink

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Also does Miller render such stacking unconstitutional?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 19, 2012 6:26:50 AM

Mauricio was not the first GVR of a California JLWOP sentence in light of Miller/Jackson. In June, the Court GVR'd Guillen v. California, No. 11-8655, also a California "presumptive" JLWOP sentence. It is very clear that "presumptive" JLWOP is just not Miller/Jackson-compatible.

Posted by: hgd | Nov 19, 2012 11:12:52 AM

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