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March 15, 2014

Top Texas criminal court, in split ruling, decides Miller is to be applied retroactively

As reported in this Austin American-Statesman article, headlined "Court tosses out sentence for Austin killer," the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled this past week that the US Supreme Court's Miller ruling is to apply retroactively.  Here are the basics:

The state’s highest criminal court Wednesday ordered a new sentence for Terrell Maxwell, who is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for shooting an Austin man in the head during a 2007 robbery.  Maxwell was 17 at the time of the shooting, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that his automatic sentence of life without parole violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment when applied to defendants who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime.

The 5-4 ruling left intact Maxwell’s conviction for capital murder in the death of Fernando Santander, who was shot while sitting in a van in the parking lot of his apartment complex near Rundberg Lane.  Two accomplices testified that Maxwell shot Santander when the 31-year-old, startled to find a gun pointing at his cheek, quickly raised his hands in surrender, court records show.

The Texas court split on whether a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — Miller v. Alabama, which established that automatic no-parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional — applied retroactively to defendants like Maxwell.

Writing for the Texas court’s majority [opinion available here], Judge Cathy Cochran said the Miller ruling required that Maxwell be given the opportunity to argue in court that life without parole was not an appropriate sentence.  The Miller ruling did not prevent life without parole for juvenile murderers, Cochran wrote.  But before such a sentence can be imposed, jurors must consider “how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison,” she noted.

Two dissents — written by Judges Michael Keasler and Paul Womack, joined by Presiding Judge Sharon Keller and Judge Barbara Hervey [available here and here] — said the Miller ruling should not be applied retroactively....

Texas no longer allows the practice, but 17 Texans are serving life without parole for murders committed while they were juveniles between 2005 and 2009. In 2005, Texas juries were given the choice between execution and life without parole for those convicted of capital murder. Because capital punishment was unconstitutional for offenders younger than 18, a guilty verdict meant a mandatory life sentence without parole for teens tried as adults.

Four years later, the law was amended to ban no-parole sentences for juveniles. Several legislators said the move was intended to correct an oversight in the 2005 law, but the no-parole ban was not made retroactive.

March 15, 2014 at 04:36 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Disgusting.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 15, 2014 5:01:23 PM

Federalist, I know. I know. Those 5 Texas judges in the majority are just hacks.

Posted by: anon | Mar 15, 2014 6:43:37 PM

While I still believe that SCOTUS got Miller wrong I nonetheless think that the Texas court got this right. I see no possibility that SCOTUS will not make Miller retroactive (especially since one of Miller or Ghrame was already on habeas review, better to bow to that realitythan waste even more moeny fighting it than will already have to be spent.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 15, 2014 8:09:29 PM

No, worse than hacks--cowards. They caved to SCOTUS. SCOTUS should have to do its own dirty work of upsetting settled expectations of murder victims' families.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 15, 2014 9:43:36 PM

I have to give fed this one. Sorry but I think the ideal that a court can MAKE a decision by NOT making a decision is just nuts.

it's right up there with their "unpublished opinions" sorry if you can't back it up with your damn signature and publish the damn thing it's a non-starter.

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 17, 2014 3:45:07 PM

Part of the problem with the companion case in Miller is that different terminology means different things in different states and in the federal system.

The Arkansas case was a first-phase collateral review on the validity of the sentence. There is no indication in the Arkansas case that Arkansas believed that state procedural rules barred the retroactive application of any ruling as a "new rule." Unless the state court raises it as a state procedural bar, I am unaware of any U.S. Supreme Court case that distinguishes whether it is reviewing a state court decision on state direct appeal or state collateral appeal. Because a state procedural bar was not asserted, the Arkansas companion case does not address whether a state court has to retroactively apply Miller or whether the Supreme Court would view it as within the Teague exceptions if raised in a federal habeas petition.

Posted by: tmm | Mar 17, 2014 6:04:01 PM

@federalist, Texas is arguably one of the two or three most conservative states in the country. The CCA is all Republicans, all pro-death penalty, all elected in GOP primaries by a small coterie of hyper-conservative voters. If a majority of Texas CCA judges are "hacks," "cowards," traitors, doing the "dirty work" of the majority Republican SCOTUS, etc., can anyone satisfy you?

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 19, 2014 10:14:13 PM

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