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July 8, 2015

Federal habeas ruling decides Virginia's geriatric release does not permit juve LWOP

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable federal habeas decision handed down last week by a federal district court in Virginia. In LeBanc v. Mathena, No. 2:12cv340 (ED Va July 1, 2015) (available here), the federal judge rejected the claim embraced by the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision that the state's geriatric release provisions allowed the sentencing juveniles to life without parole sentences without violating the Supreme Court's Graham ruling. The LeBlanc decision has a number of powerful passages, and here are some key portions of the 32-page ruling:

Virginia Code § 53.1-40.01 governs the possible release of geriatric prisoners, and provides for the opportunity of conditional releaseto prisoners who have reachedthe age ofsixty or older and have served at least ten years of their sentence, or who have reached the age of sixty-five or older and have served at least five years of their sentence.  The Supreme Court of Virginia concluded that in light ofthis provision, Virginia's sentencing scheme can be construed as being in compliance with Graham.  The Virginia Supreme Court held that the possibility of geriatric release provides a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."...

This theory of compliance is a misapplication of the governing legal principle of Graham—that children are different and warrant special consideration in sentencing....  By relying on a geriatric release provision — a provision that by its very name was designed to be invoked by and on behalf of the elderly — in an attempt to salvage unconstitutional sentences, the Supreme Court of Virginia and the state trial court missed the heart of Graham — that children are, and must be recognized by sentencing courts as, distinguishable from adult criminals....

If it can be said that Virginia's sentencing scheme treats children differently than adults, it would be because, tragically, the scheme treats children worse.  Under Virginia's current sentencing policies, prisoners are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for nonhomicide offenses that they committed as children.  Like any other prisoner in Virginia, regardless of their age at the time of the offense, if these prisoners live to see the age ofsixty or sixty-five, they may apply for geriatric release.  This treats children worse than adults....

The Supreme Court has recognized that nonhomicide juvenile offenders serving life sentences must be given "the opportunity to achieve maturity ofjudgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential."  Graham, 560 U.S. at 79.  The distant and minute chance at geriatric release at a time when the offender has no realistic opportunity to truly reenter society or have any meaningful life outside of prison deprives the offender of hope.  Without hope, these juvenile offenders are being discarded in cages and left to abject despair rather than with any meaningful reason to develop their human worth.  This result falls far short of the hallmarks of compassion, mercy and fairness rooted in this nation's commitment to justice.”

July 8, 2015 at 10:58 PM | Permalink

Comments

Good. Virginia's reasoning struck me as absurd: basically, a blatant ignoring of the Court's opinion.

Posted by: Erik M | Jul 9, 2015 3:54:59 PM

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