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October 23, 2016

Supreme Court of Louisiana declares 99-year term without parole for juve armed robber violates Graham

The Supreme Court of Louisiana issued an interesting and significant unanimous ruling last week in Morgan v. Louisiana, No. 2015-KH-0100 (La. Oct. 19, 2016) (available here).  Here is how the opinion gets started:

A jury found the defendant, Alden Morgan, committed the offense of armed robbery at age 17.  Following return of the guilty verdict, the district court sentenced him to 99 years imprisonment at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.  After being denied relief on direct review, the defendant filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence in light of recent developments in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence pertaining to the sentencing of juveniles.  Specifically, the defendant relied on Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), wherein the United States Supreme Court concluded that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a nonhomicide offense committed when the defendant was a juvenile constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.  We granted the defendant’s writ application to determine whether the defendant’s 99-year sentence is an effective life sentence and is, therefore, illegal under the Supreme Court’s decision in Graham.  For the reasons that follow, we hold that a 99-year sentence without parole is illegal because it does not provide the defendant “with a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id., 560 U.S. at 75.  Accordingly, we amend the defendant’s sentence to delete the restriction on parole eligibility and direct the Department of Corrections to revise the defendant’s prison masters according to the criteria in La. R.S. 15:574.4(D) to reflect an eligibility date for consideration by the Board of Parole.

What makes the Morgan opinion especially blogworthy is the short concurring opinion authored by Justice Crichton, which reads as follows:

“I do solemnly swear that I will support the constitution and laws of the United States and the constitution and laws of this state. . .” La. Const. art. X, § 30.

These words, which each justice of this Court affirmed upon taking office, which all Louisiana lawyers affirm, and which the District Attorney also affirms, reflect our solemn duty as members of the judiciary and the broader judicial system to uphold the constitutions of the United States and Louisiana.  Despite the clear mandate of the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Orleans Parish District Attorney has taken the stunning position that this defendant does not face the functional equivalent of life imprisonment and that he would have — in the year 2082 and at age 101 — a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id., 560 U.S. at 75.  Even worse, the District Attorney has invited this state’s high court to join him in this constitutionally untenable position that directly conflicts with a line of United States Supreme Court cases rolling back excessive punishment of juvenile offenders.  See Graham, supra, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. -- (2012).  This position would, in my view, violate our oath of office insofar as it would contravene the Supreme Court’s pronouncements and, therefore, also violate the Supremacy Clause.  U.S. Const. art. VI, cl.2.  See State ex rel. Barrabino v. Henderson, 283 So. 2d 764, 766 (La. 1973) (Tate, J., concurring) (“The United States Constitution as interpreted by that court is binding upon every court in this land, including the Supreme Court of Louisiana. . . .”).  See also generally La. Rules of Prof. Conduct R. 3.1, 3.3.

Relatedly, I emphasize that the district attorney has an awesome amount of power in our justice system, which encompasses the “entire charge and control of every criminal prosecution instituted or pending in his district,” including the determination of “whom, when, and how he shall prosecute.”  La. C.Cr.P. art. 61.  As such, a prosecutor’s responsibility is as “a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate.”  Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 3.8 cmt[1] (Am. Bar. Ass’n 1983).  See also State v. Tate, 171 So. 108, 112 (La. 1936) (noting that the district attorney “represents the State, and the State demands no victims.  It seeks justice only, equal and impartial justice. . . .”).  Given both this power and responsibility, the District Attorney should seek to uphold the integrity of his office by declining to take positions that, as reflected by the 7-0 decision in this case, contravene federal constitutional law.

October 23, 2016 at 07:40 PM | Permalink

Comments

Awwwww, did Judge Crichton get his little nose out of joint? Awwww. Bottom line is that a term of years hasn't been ruled upon, and why in the world would a prosecutor (like the Anglo-Saxon fyrd helping the Normans) help courts do the dirty work of expanding lawless decisions.

Yes, I get it--a 99 year sentence is effectively a life sentence, and so, as a matter of logic, a 99 year sentence should be governed by the ban on LWOP for non-homicide crimes. But given where we are, neither SCOTUS nor the judicial system has the right to expect prosecutors to go along with this, and threats like the one Judge Crichton made are inappropriate.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 24, 2016 9:44:57 AM

The concurring opinion seemed pretty light on the Judge who imposed the sentence, to be honest. I agree about the awesome responsibility of the prosecutor that includes fairplay here, but it is at least an adversarial system. The Judge doesn't have that excuse.

Posted by: Erik M | Oct 24, 2016 11:17:21 AM

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