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August 25, 2017

Supreme Court of Wyoming continues to interpret Graham and Miller broadly

A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss an interesting opinion handed down yesterday by the Supreme Court of Wyoming in Sam v. Wyoming, No. S-16-0168 (Wy. Aug. 24, 2017) (available here), involving the Supreme Court's juve sentencing jurisprudence.  Here are concluding passages from the majority opinion ruling for the defendant in Sam:

Mr. Sam argues that his consecutive sentences of a minimum of 52 years, with release possible when he is 70 years old, is unconstitutional....

In Bear Cloud III, we analyzed the United States Supreme Court case law leading up to Miller and concluded that the prohibition of life without parole sentences required a “‘meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.’” 2014 WY 113, ¶ 21, 334 P.3d at 139 (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 75, 130 S.Ct. at 2030). And we held that “‘[t]he prospect of geriatric release . . . does not provide a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate the maturity and rehabilitation required to obtain release and reenter society as required by Graham . . . .’” Bear Cloud III, 2014 WY 113, ¶ 34, 334 P.3d at 142 (quoting State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41, 71 (Iowa 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted)).   Since then, the United States Supreme Court has confirmed that the release for juveniles contemplated by the Roper, Graham, and Miller courts should allow them “hope for some years of life outside prison walls . . . .” Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 736-37. We held in Mr. Bear Cloud’s case that his sentence of a minimum of 45 years, with possible release when he is 61, was the functional equivalent of life without parole. Bear Cloud III, 2014 WY 113, ¶¶ 11, 33, 334 P.3d at 136, 142. In this case, the sentencing court has made the determination that Mr. Sam is not one of the juvenile offenders whose crime reflects irreparable corruption. An aggregated minimum sentence exceeding the 45/61 standard is the functional equivalent of life without parole and violates Bear Cloud III and Miller and its progeny. The sentence imposed on Mr. Sam of a minimum 52 years with possible release at age 70 clearly exceeds that. We therefore reverse and remand with instructions to the sentencing court to sentence Mr. Sam within the confines set forth in Bear Cloud III.

A dissenting justice in Sam took a distinct view, and here are conclusing passages from the dissenting opinion:

Mr. Sam did not act from impulse, immaturity, or at the invitation or inducement of others.  He intentionally prepared for his crimes, baited the victims into an ambush, committed multiple aggravated assaults on numerous victims, and culminated the spree with an execution-style murder.  Proportionality requires that those factors be considered in his sentence, as well as the remote possibility of rehabilitation.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not defined a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release.”  Nothing in any Supreme Court decision suggests that a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” must be the same for every defendant.  To the contrary, the proportionality required by the Eighth Amendment indicates that a more mature defendant who commits multiple crimes including murder should receive a lengthier sentence than someone who is less mature or commits only one crime.

In this case, the district court did all it was required to do in sentencing Mr. Sam.  It conducted a thorough individualized sentencing hearing and considered multiple times Mr. Sam’s youthful factors, family history, and participation in the crime as required by Miller and Bear Cloud III. It crafted a sentence it felt was appropriate based upon all of these factors, and it believed this sentence did not constitute a de facto life sentence.  It concluded that Mr. Sam deserved a longer sentence than if he had only committed the murder, or the murder and one additional aggravated assault.

The majority remands this case to the district court to impose an aggregate sentence of something less than the 45 years that was rejected in Bear Cloud III, concluding that Mr. Sam’s sentence denies him any meaningful opportunity for release before he is “geriatric.”  I disagree.  If Mr. Sam is motivated by the possibility of parole and comports himself well while in prison he will receive credit for “good time” under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-13-420 (LexisNexis 2017) and Department of Corrections rules.  He will then be eligible for parole on the last of his sentences at about age 61.  I do not agree that release at that age deprives Mr. Sam of all meaningful portions of life.

August 25, 2017 at 10:20 AM | Permalink

Comments

These sorts of "what did they mean" questions are somewhat easier in states that decide the federal floor is too low for the law of their own states. But, of course, a state court will sometimes not decide to do that on their own, finding state law does not require it.

Still, when possible, it always to me seems best for state courts when possible just to forthrightly say they have more discretion & it light of a federal rule that is broad enough to allow it, they are deciding "x." This would also be an "independent state ground" and the federal courts would stay out as much as possible.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 25, 2017 11:06:40 AM

These sorts of "what did they mean" questions are somewhat easier in states that decide the federal floor is too low for the law of their own states. But, of course, a state court will sometimes not decide to do that on their own, finding state law does not require it.

Still, when possible, it always to me seems best for state courts when possible just to forthrightly say they have more discretion & it light of a federal rule that is broad enough to allow it, they are deciding "x." This would also be an "independent state ground" and the federal courts would stay out as much as possible.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 25, 2017 11:06:41 AM

Graham and Miller may be ignored by the states. The latter may decide to execute adults down to age 14. That is the real age of adulthood according to nature (the age of reproduction is adulthood in all plants and animals), according to all religious rituals around the world, and in all cultures, and according to 10,000 years of history of human civilization.

Judicial review by any appellate court is unlawful, in violation of Article I Section 1, giving law making power to the Congress. Unlawful decision are void, not voidable. No part of Article III supports judicial review. At best, these Supreme Court decisions are the feelings of Ivy indoctrinated morons, and totally discretionary.

The federal marshal service is part of the executive branch. The President should declare his refusal to send any federal police to enforce any Supreme Court decision, in accordance with our constitution.

If one shows up in a state executive branch, such as an execution chamber, taser, pepper spray, beat his ass, expel from the state, roughly. To deter.

If you lawyers want to have judicial review, to generate your worthless, make work appellate jobs, enact and ratify an Amendment to our constitution.

Posted by: David Behar | Aug 25, 2017 10:03:10 PM

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Posted by: Stuart Broad | Oct 12, 2017 10:56:17 AM

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