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July 12, 2017

Missouri Supreme Court extends Miller to juvenile sentenced to mandatory life without parole eligibility for 50 years

The Supreme Court of Missouri yesterday handed down a notable ruling in State ex rel. Carr v. Wallace, No. SC93487 (Mo. July 11, 2017) (available here), which extends the reach of the US Supreme Court Miller ruling beyond mandatory LWOP sentencing.  Here is how the majority opinion in Carr gets going: 

In 1983, Jason Carr was convicted of three counts of capital murder for killing his brother, stepmother, and stepsister when he was 16 years old.  He was sentenced to three concurrent terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years.  His sentences were imposed without any consideration of his youth.  Mr. Carr filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in this Court. He contends his sentences violate the Eighth Amendment because, following the decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life without parole pursuant to mandatory sentencing schemes that preclude consideration of the offender’s youth and attendant circumstances.

Mr. Carr was sentenced under a mandatory sentencing scheme that afforded the sentencer no opportunity to consider his age, maturity, limited control over his environment, the transient characteristics attendant to youth, or his capacity for rehabilitation.  As a result, Mr. Carr’s sentences were imposed in direct contravention of the foundational principle that imposition of a state’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.  Consequently, Mr. Carr’s sentences of life without the possibility of parole for 50 years violate the Eighth Amendment.  Mr. Carr must be resentenced so his youth and other attendant circumstances surrounding his offense can be taken into consideration to ensure he will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  Habeas relief is granted.

Chief Justice Fischer dissenting from the decision, and here is the heart of his short opinion:

Carr's three concurrent terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years do not run afoul of Miller. Miller only applies to cases in which a sentencing scheme "mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders." 132 S. Ct. at 2469.  Therefore, Miller does not require vacating Carr's sentences.  Nor are Carr's sentences inconsistent with this Court's or any of the Supreme Court's current Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Indeed, the principal opinion's holding that Miller applies to Carr's sentences is, undoubtedly, not just an extension of Miller, but also calls into question whether any mandatory minimum sentence for murder could be imposed on a juvenile offender.  Accordingly, I decline to concur with that implication and remain bound by this Court's unanimous decision in Hart to apply Miller only to cases involving a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

July 12, 2017 at 06:30 PM | Permalink

Comments

One judge prefers to follow the spirit of the law, the other its letter. I side with the majority because I think it is disingenuous to assert that a 50 year sentence is not a life sentence. After 50 years he would be 66, at retirement for someone in his generation. You have taken the entirely of his adulthood; he would go in a boy and come out an old man. At every functional level that is a life sentence even if it is not technically the entirety on his expect lifespan.

Posted by: Daniel | Jul 12, 2017 7:10:00 PM

Daniel,

Sorry, but if he would have a reasonable chance of leaving prison alive then I would say Miller is satisfied. And note that I will agree for sake of argument )even though I continue to believe that Miller was wrong) that "reasonable chance" is something much higher than fifty-fifty -- call it 90% for this purpose. As far as I read Miller it doesn't require any sort of shot at freedom in middle age, only a shot at freedom sometime during the offender's life.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 12, 2017 11:45:57 PM

When is not a life sentence a life sentence--when there's a murderer to help. Words, I guess, mean whatever they mean.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 13, 2017 8:46:10 AM

Miller doesn't provide guaranteed parole. It provides the chance for parole though the implication is that only particularly horrible cases warrant no parole.

But, three acts of capital murder seems to me to meet that test. So, a hearing, now about thirty-five years after a sixteen year old murdered three family members, crimes that repeatedly have possible mitigating factors, including involving future possible conduct. The opinion spells out some tragic family drama, including involving strict religious belief. This is not about some sort of robbery homicide or various other cases.

Miller v. Alabama cited a range of cases in which being a minor was used to treat them differently (from abortion to interrogations to 8A issues directly). So, the general principle would seem to warrant application here. The "help" (possibility of parole after thirty-five years) would not just apply to murder.

Daniel's comment is reasonable but the opinion draws on somewhat narrower grounds. It notes that argues "mandatory sentencing" is at issue here. Miller v. Alabama at one point says: "So Graham and Roper and our individualized sentencing cases alike teach that in imposing a State's harshest penalties, a sentencer misses too much if he treats every child as an adult."

The state court here notes the sentence here was the harshest penalty other than death that could be applied. The dissent argues they "cherry-picked" from Miller. But, the state court here seems to be following the overall principles of the Supreme Court, including broadly recognizing youth are different. And, merely taking into consideration of youth is just that. He still could be sentenced a mandatory term.

On the merits, however, it just might be thirty-five years, not a drop in the bucket, is enough, including for the particular tragic crime at issue.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 13, 2017 10:36:09 AM

If you look at the other two juvenile sentencing opinions issued by the Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday, the key issue for those who joined all three opinions was mandatory versus discretionary.

In Carr, the majority found a Miller violation because the sentence of life without parole for 50 years was a mandatory sentence. In Nathan, the majority found that there was no Miller violation from consecutive sentences in a homicide case that allegedly qualified as a de facto life without parole sentence. In Willbanks, the majority rejected a Graham claim based on consecutive sentences for non-homicide offenses that allegedly qualified as a de facto life without parole sentence. In both Nathan and Willbanks, the majority relied, in large part, on the fact that the decision to impose consecutive sentences was a discretionary decision made by the judge based on the facts of the case.

The issue, glossed over in Carr, is how long a period of parole ineligibility is too long to be mandatory. The new Missouri murder 1 statute precludes parole for 30 years but allows the jury (or the judge) to make an individualized decision for a longer period of parole ineligibility (including possibly sentencing to life without parole). We know from Montgomery, that the U.S. Supreme Court appears to be fine with not giving juveniles a parole hearing for 25 years. Where between 25 and 50 is the line?

Posted by: tmm | Jul 13, 2017 11:01:57 AM

I would also note a fact not included in the published opinion. Carr was the only person serving that type of sentence for an offense committed while a juvenile. The law changed in 1984 to switch to life without parole. Last year, the Missouri General Assembly created a parole hearing for juveniles serving life without parole for offenses committed between 1984 and 2016. Those offenders get a parole hearing after twenty-five years leaving Carr as a class of one who has to serve fifty years before getting a hearing.

Posted by: tmm | Jul 13, 2017 11:11:38 AM

ETA: To be clear, the court here set forth a rule regarding sentencing that would in the appropriate case apply to sentencing now. But, basically, the result for the person amounts to a new sentencing hearing after being in prison for thirty five years.

As is often the case, as noted in a later comment, the case has other wrinkles.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 13, 2017 12:01:20 PM

The prison may quietly reward squads of lifers who eradicate these murderers. A carton of cigarettes would send the message.

These lifers can be charged in a lawyer farce, but have absolute legal immunity. Lawyer scum can make fees for trying lifers for murdering these young murderers.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 13, 2017 8:13:05 PM

Supremacy Clause (and Doug), do you notice that your more outrageous utterances tend to close down the comments in most of the posts? You must know by now that all here are well-aware of your unappreciative attitude for the protectors of the constitutional right of all Americans. If you truly seek reasoned discourse, I might suggest that you utilize language of persuasion rather than language of tinfoil-hat tomfoolery.

Posted by: Mark M. | Jul 16, 2017 12:20:23 AM

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