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September 4, 2018

Federal district court finds Louisiana LWOP sentence for low-level recidivist unconstitutionally excessive under Eighth Amendment (and local DA will not appeal to Fifth Circuit)

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this local press report, headlined "Judge orders release or resentencing of St. Tammany man serving life for burglary," discussing a notable ruling from the federal district court in New Orleans.  Here are the basics:

When he went before a judge in 2010, Patrick Matthews was a 22-year-old father of two who had a criminal record but had never spent a day in prison. But to the office of former north shore District Attorney Walter Reed, he was a hardened criminal who deserved a life sentence as a habitual offender for the crime of simple burglary. Matthews received that sentence with no chance at parole in a state where “life means life.”

Eight years later, Reed is a convicted federal felon, though his case is on appeal. The Legislature has changed the law so that no one could receive a sentence like Matthews’ today, but Matthews himself, now 31, remains behind bars at a prison in St. Gabriel.

On Wednesday, however, U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown said Matthews’ life sentence violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment. She ordered him to be resentenced to a lesser term or released within 120 days.

Current 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery’s office is not appealing Brown’s decision, although prosecutors could still seek to keep him in prison for several years more. Attorney Justin Harrell said his client’s family is ecstatic. “At least there’ll be an end to it, as opposed to that indefinite life sentence,” Harrell said.

Although the federal court ruling hinged on the specific facts of Matthews’ case, it is in line with a larger shift in the past decade away from Louisiana’s strict mandatory minimum sentences. In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that 429 people in Louisiana were serving sentences of life without possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses — more than in any other state. Criminal justice reform advocates like the ACLU singled out Matthews as an egregious example of the state’s penchant for sending people away for life for nonviolent offenses.

The Legislature changed the habitual offender law in 2017 to make it less strict. However, those changes did not affect sentences already in place. With his appeals in state court exhausted, Matthews had only the federal courts to ask for mercy.

Brown agreed to adopt the recommendation of Magistrate Judge Janis van Meerveld, who acknowledged that it was rare for the federal courts to weigh in on a state sentence. However, Meerveld said, Matthews presented an unusual case.... Meerveld said she had “no hesitation in finding that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a youthful, drug-addicted offender guilty of nothing more than two clusters of minor, nonviolent property crimes crosses the line from merely harsh to grossly disproportionate.”

Prosecutors under both Reed's and Montgomery’s administrations consistently opposed Matthews’ appeals, but lately their stance has changed. In a short brief filed in July, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Caplan replied to a question from the judge as to whether the sentence was grossly disproportionate. “It appears that way,” he said.

As this press account reveals, US District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown granted relief on "Matthews' excessive sentence claim" on the basis of the recommendation of US Magistrate Judge Janis van Meerveld.  Judge van Meerveld wrote an extended opinion explaining her recommendation in Matthews v. Cain, No. 2:15-cv-00430-NJB (E.D. La. Aug. 13, 2018), and that opinion can be downloaded below (and merits a full read).  Here are some key passages therein (emphasis in original):

Of course, the mere fact that a sentence is harsh does not mean that it is disproportionate.  Nevertheless, the undersigned has no hesitation in finding that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a youthful, drug-addicted offender guilty of nothing more than two clusters of minor, nonviolent property crimes crosses the line from merely harsh to grossly disproportionate.  As one scholar has noted: “[T]here is no uglier disproportionality than a man, guilty of a minor crime, banished to a cage for the remainder of his life.”  Craig S. Lerner, Who’s Really Sentenced to Life Without Parole?: Searching for the “Ugly Disproportionalities” in the American Criminal Justice System, 2015 Wis. L. Rev. 789, 793 (2015) (footnote omitted)....

[A]at the time Matthews was sentenced, Louisiana law punished a wide swath of fourth offenders identically, regardless of the nature of their criminal histories.  Accordingly, a fourth offender with a history of nonviolent property crimes, such as Matthews, was treated no differently than a fourth offender with a history of violent crimes and/or serious sex offenses. However, the impropriety of equating such disparate offenders was so apparent that the state has now abandoned that practice.  In fact, as Matthews noted and the respondent did not dispute, an individual with Matthews’ criminal history would not even be eligible for a life sentence as a habitual offender under current Louisiana law.

The undersigned therefore finds that an interjurisdictional comparative analysis likewise supports a conclusion that Matthews’ sentence is unconstitutionally excessive.  It must be noted that this conclusion neither calls into question the general constitutionality of Louisiana’s habitual offender law nor impugns the state’s decision to employ a harsher recidivist sentencing structure than those employed by the vast majority of its sister states.  Rather, it is simply a recognition that even among the minority of states that vigorously punish recidivism, a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a young, drug-addicted, nonviolent, sporadic burglar who had never been sentenced to a single day in prison for his prior offenses is such an anomaly as to be unconstitutional.

Download Matthews v. Cain excessiveness opinion

September 4, 2018 at 05:27 PM | Permalink

Comments

Thanks Doug, for the posting. I am working on a case where the defendant received LWOP in a non-homicide case, due to several misdemeanors. Under the sentencing grid, a misdemeanor is worth one point on the prior record level chart, and he got put in the the higher prior record level due to two or three misdemeanors.

North Carolina is handing out Life Without Parole like its candy. I have another guy who was convicted of felony murder during a drug deal gone bad, and a bullet hit a bystander. The jury sent out a note asking "do we have to convict him of first degree murder if we believe the killing was an accident? Judge said "yes." NC is one of only five states in the country where felony murder is always first degree and always punishable by mandatory life without parole.

bruce

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Sep 5, 2018 8:01:28 AM

It is clear that the local officials (due to changes in personnel or changes in attitude or both) no longer agree with the original sentence. But is there any real doubt about how the Fifth Circuit would have ruled on the appeal?

Posted by: tmm | Sep 5, 2018 1:55:43 PM

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