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November 7, 2016

Split Fourth Circuit panel concludes Virginia’s geriatric release program insufficient to save juve LWOP sentences from violating Graham

A Fourth Circuit panel today handed down a lengthy split decision today in LeBlanc v. Mathena, No. 15-7151 (4th Cir. Nov. 7, 2016) (available here), concerning the application of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment Graham ruling in Virginia.  Here is how the majority opinion by Judge Wynn gets started:

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74 (2010), held that “the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentence of life without parole” for juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that States must provide juvenile nonhomicide offenders sentenced to life imprisonment with “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id. at 75.

Nearly a decade before the Supreme Court decided Graham, Respondent, the Commonwealth of Virginia, sentenced Petitioner Dennis LeBlanc to life imprisonment without parole for a nonhomicide offense he committed at the age of sixteen. In light of Graham, Petitioner sought postconviction relief from his sentence in Virginia state courts. The state courts denied Petitioner relief, holding that Virginia’s geriatric release program — which was adopted more than fifteen years before the Supreme Court decided Graham and will allow Petitioner to seek release beginning at the age of sixty — provides the “meaningful opportunity” for release that Graham requires.

Mindful of the deference we must accord to state court decisions denying state prisoners postconviction relief, we nonetheless conclude that Petitioner’s state court adjudication constituted an unreasonable application of Graham.  Most significantly, Virginia courts unreasonably ignored the plain language of the procedures governing review of petitions for geriatric release, which authorize the State Parole Board to deny geriatric release for any reason, without considering a juvenile offender’s maturity and rehabilitation.  In light of the lack of governing standards, it was objectively unreasonable for the state courts to conclude that geriatric release affords Petitioner with the “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” Graham demands. Id.  Accordingly, Petitioner is entitled to relief from his unconstitutional sentence.

Judge Niemeyer issued a lengthy dissent that gets started this way:

In affirming the grant of Dennis LeBlanc’s habeas petition brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the majority holds that the Virginia Supreme Court concluded unreasonably that Virginia’s geriatric release program provided a meaningful opportunity for release to juveniles and therefore satisfied the requirements of Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).  Graham forbids sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes.  In reaching its conclusion, the majority relies simply on its expressed disagreement with the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, 704 S.E.2d 386 (Va. 2011), and effectively overrules it.  The Virginia court’s opinion, however, is demonstrably every bit as reasonable as the majority’s opinion in this case and should be given deference under § 2254(d)(1).

Especially because the "swing" vote on this panel came from a district judge sitting by designation, I think there is a decent chance this case might get further consideration by the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc. I also would expect Virginia to seek Supreme Court review if it does not seek or secure en banc review.

November 7, 2016 at 04:39 PM | Permalink

Comments

Presumably you would regret further State appeal as a defiance against Supreme Court instruction which was perfectly clear in its intent.

Posted by: peter | Nov 8, 2016 8:33:31 AM

..... in as much as any Supreme Court is ever perfectly clear.

Posted by: peter | Nov 8, 2016 8:35:05 AM

Parole can be discretionary. That pretty much nukes the majority's argument.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 8, 2016 10:39:09 AM

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