Saturday, August 12, 2017

Interesting and consequential Florida Supreme Court decision on retroactivity of Hurst

As this Death Penalty Information Center posting details, the Florida Supreme Court this past week reiterated that it would not apply retroactively its rulings requiring unanimous jury verdicts for death sentences to cases made final by June 2002 when SCOTUS decided Ring v. Arizona. The Florida court's per curiam opinion in Hitchcock v. Florida, No. SC17-445 (Fla. Aug. 10, 2017) (available here), mostly just restates a prior retroactivity ruling, but concurring and dissenting opinions make for interesting reads on retroactivity doctrines and policies.

As the DPIC posting notes, "Hitchcock's case was closely watched because the Florida courts had frozen the briefing schedules for 77 similarly situated death-row prisoners who also were arguing that Hurst should be enforced in their cases." I suspect most, if not all, of these prisoners will not be seeking certiorari to the US Supreme Court, but I would be surprised if SCOTUS takes up any of their cases.

August 12, 2017 in Apprendi / Blakely Retroactivity , Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Should and will SCOTUS take up constitutional challenge to Minnesota's sex offender confinement program?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this effective Minnesota Lawyer article headlined "SCOTUS to mull accepting sex offender lawsuit."  The article reviews a cert petition that has garnered a lot of amici interest, which always increases the odds of SCOTUS interest. Here are excerpts from the start and end of the piece:

A case began in December 2011 as a pro se proceeding by patients in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program disputing the conditions including room searches, restrictive telephone and mail policies and bad food, among other things — that’s how the defendant state of Minnesota characterized it, anyway.  When the petitioners got an attorney, it got re-characterized as a matter of substantive due process.

It’s now pending at the United States Supreme Court, where the justices will consider the patients’ petition for certiorari.  The briefs are all in now — one from the state, two from petitioners and four from amicus curiae supporting the petitioners.

The constitutional issue presented to the Supreme Court is the standard of review that should apply to substantive due process claims brought by the patients. Strict scrutiny, the highest standard, as employed by Judge Donovan Frank?  Or simply a reasonable relation standard, as used by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals? And must one’s conscience be shocked by the actions of the respondents, and if so, at what stage of the review?

As the petitioners’ attorney, Dan Gustafson, sees it, the nub of the problem is that once a person is committed, he or she is labeled dangerous and loses the fundamental right to liberty effectively forever under the state system. The state has failed to enact a procedure to make sure that people are able to be released, Gustafson said. The state does have a statutory reduction in custody scheme in place, but it shifts the burden of proof to the patient and it has never resulted in a release until this lawsuit was filed. “We’ve demonstrated that it hasn’t worked for the last 25 years,” Gustafson said....

Four amicus curiae briefs from a spectrum of philosophical points of view have been submitted by friends of the court in Karsjens, et al. v. Emily Johnson Piper, et al. But they all want the Supreme Court to reverse the 8th Circuit, which didn’t have a problem with the program, which had been found unconstitutional by Judge Donovan Frank.

A group of 26 professors of law or related subjects has submitted a brief written by Mitchell Hamline Professor Eric Janus and Minneapolis attorney Richard D. Snyder. The fatal flaw in the MSOP program is that no one gets out, Janus said. “The core of the case is that the state set up what it said was going to be a civil commitment program. And the core definition of that is people get out, and that’s exactly what is missing in the Minnesota program.  It’s not just missing here or there, it’s systemically missing,” Janus wrote.

The Cato Institute, known as a libertarian think tank and an advocate for limited government, is another friend of the court.  Its brief argues, “Sex-offender laws have bored a hole in the nation’s constitutional fabric.  As state and federal governments expand that hole — threatening to swallow other rights and other’s rights — this Court should intervene.”

Also weighing in are criminology scholars and the Fair Punishment Project of Harvard Law School, as well as the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. The Fair Punishment Project writes that the commitment statute is a punitive scheme that has responded excessively to “moral panic.”  The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers promotes sex offender research and treatment.  It argues that granting review is necessary to take account of important advances in the empirical study of rates of recidivism among sexual offenders; effective assessment treatment, and management of sexual offenders; and factors that influence the effectiveness of treatment interventions.

A few prior related posts:

August 9, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

"The Practical Case for Parole for Violent Offenders"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times op-ed authored by Marc Morjé Howard.  Here are excerpts:

The American criminal justice system is exceptional, in the worst way possible: It combines exceptionally coercive plea bargaining, exceptionally long sentences, exceptionally brutal prison conditions and exceptionally difficult obstacles to societal re-entry. This punitiveness makes us stand out as uniquely inhumane in comparison with other industrialized countries.
To remedy this, along with other changes, we must consider opening the exit doors — and not just for the “easy” cases of nonviolent drug offenders.  Yes, I’m suggesting that we release some of the people who once committed serious, violent crimes....
[S]entencing reform — mainly consisting of reduced penalties for drug-related crimes — has received bipartisan support at both the federal and state levels. But this isn’t enough. We should also bring back discretionary parole — release before a sentence is completed — even for people convicted of violent crimes if they’ve demonstrated progress during their imprisonment.
Other democracies regularly allow such prisoners to be granted reduced sentences or conditional release. But in the United States the conversation about this common-sense policy became politicized decades ago. As a result, discretionary parole has largely disappeared in most states and was eliminated in the federal system. Prisoners whose sentences include a range of years — such as 15 to 25 years, or 25 years to life — can apply to their state’s parole board for discretionary parole, but they almost always face repeated denials and are sent back to wither away behind bars despite evidence of rehabilitation. (Inmates who have served their maximum sentence are released on what is called mandatory parole.)
Rejection is usually based on the “nature of the crime,” rather than an evaluation of a person’s transformation and accomplishments since they committed it. The deeper reason for the rejection of discretionary parole requests is simple: fear. Politicians and parole board members are terrified that a parolee will commit a new crime that attracts negative media attention.
But this fear-driven thinking is irrational, counterproductive and inhumane. It bears no connection to solid research on how criminals usually “age out” of crime, especially if they have had educational and vocational opportunities while incarcerated.  It permanently excludes people who would be eager to contribute to society as law-abiding citizens, while taxpayers spend over $30,000 a year to house each prisoner.  And it deprives hundreds of thousands of people of a meaningful chance to earn their freedom.
But are prisoners who have served long sentences for violent crimes genuinely capable of reforming and not reoffending?  The evidence says yes.  In fact, only about 1 percent of people convicted of homicide are arrested for homicide again after their release. Moreover, a recent “natural experiment” in Maryland is very telling.  In 2012, the state’s highest court decided that Maryland juries in the 1970s had been given faulty instructions. Some defendants were retried, but many others accepted plea bargains for time served and were released.  As a result, about 150 people who had been deemed the “worst of the worst” have been let out of prison — and none has committed a new crime or even violated parole....
Until recently the political situation was favorable to bipartisan criminal justice reform.  But the election of a self-described “law and order candidate,” the doubling of the stock prices of private-prison companies and the return of the discredited war on drugs gives an indication of the direction of the current administration.
But whenever a real discussion about reform does come, policy makers should look beyond the boundaries of the United States.  To be clear, I am not suggesting that all long-term prisoners should be released nor that the perspectives of crime victims should be ignored.  Serious crimes warrant long sentences.  But other democracies provide better models for running criminal justice and prison systems.  Perhaps we could learn from them and acquire a new mind-set — one that treats prisons as sites to temporarily separate people from society while creating opportunities for personal growth, renewal and eventual re-entry of those who are ready for it.

August 8, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, August 04, 2017

Kentucky judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for all offenders under 21 years old

As reported in this local article, headlined "Fayette judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for man under 21," a Kentucky judge reached a significant constitutional conclusion this week. Here are the basic details:

The death penalty is unconstitutional for a defendant who was younger than 21 at the time of his offense, Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled earlier this week. Scorsone issued an order declaring the death penalty unconstitutional in the case of 21-year-old Travis Bredhold. He was 18 years and five months old when he was charged in 2013 with murder and robbery in the fatal shooting of Marathon gas station attendant Mukeshbhai Patel.

Fayette County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn said in a statement Friday that she will appeal Scorsone’s order “because it is contrary to the laws of Kentucky and the laws of the United States.” Red Corn said two other cases eligible for the death penalty and pending before Scorsone will be affected by his ruling.... Red Corn’s statement said the judge’s ruling “will result in delays” in all three cases.

In a 2005 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of people who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes violated the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.

Bredhold’s defense team asked Scorsone to extend that exclusion to people 21 and younger. Prosecutors argued that the death penalty is constitutional and argued that there is no national consensus with respect to offenders under 21.

Scorsone disagreed. “Contrary to the commonwealth’s assertion, it appears there is a very clear national consensus trending toward restricting the death penalty, especially in cases where defendants are 18 to 21 years of age,” Scorsone wrote.

The judge also cited research showing that 18- to 21-year-olds are less culpable for the same reasons that the U.S. Supreme Court found teens under 18 to be. The age group lacks maturity to control their impulses and fully consider risks, making them unlikely to be deterred by knowledge of likelihood and severity of punishment, the judge wrote. In addition, they are susceptible to peer pressure and emotional influence. And their character is not yet well formed, “meaning that they have a much better chance at rehabilitation than do adults,” the judge wrote.

“Given the national trend toward restricting the use of the death penalty for young offenders, and given the recent studies by the scientific community, the death penalty would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for crimes committed by individuals under 21 years of age,” Scorsone wrote.

An individual evaluation that Bredhold “operates at a level at least four years below that of his peers” further supports the exclusion of the death penalty for Bredhold, the judge concluded.

I cannot yet find a copy of Judge Scorsone's opinion, but I am looking forward to finding it and seeing what he cites to support the assertion that there is a national trend toward restricting application of the death penalty "especially in cases where defendants are 18 to 21 years of age.” I know a lot of death penalty opponents are eager to see Roper extended to older offenders, but I am not aware of any legislation in any state that has precluded those age 18 or older from the reach of the death penalty.

UPDATE:  I just found the full opinion in this case via the Death Penalty Information Center's website, and the court relies heavily on the overall decline of executions and death sentences in recent years to make the "objective" case that application of the death penalty to defendants aged 18 to 21 are in decline. 

August 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Split DC Circuit finds unconstitutionally excessive 30-year mandatory minimum sentences for Blackwater contractors who killed Iraqis

A huge new DC Circuit opinion released today in a high-profile criminal case include a significant Eighth Amendment ruling.  The full 100+-page opinion in US v. Slatten, No. 15-3078 (DC Cir. Aug. 4, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:

Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard (“defendants”) were contractors with Blackwater Worldwide Security ("Blackwater"), which in 2007 was providing security services to the United States State Department in Iraq. As a result of Baghdad shootings that injured or killed at least 31 Iraqi civilians, Slough, Liberty and Heard were convicted by a jury of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using and discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence (or aiding-and-abetting the commission of those crimes); Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder. They now challenge their convictions on jurisdictional, procedural and several substantive grounds....

The Court concludes ...that the district court abused its discretion in denying Slatten’s motion to sever his trial from that of his co-defendants and therefore vacates his conviction and remands for a new trial. Moreover, the Court concludes that imposition of the mandatory thirty-year minimum under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), as applied here, violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, a holding from which Judge Rogers dissents. The Court therefore remands for the resentencing of Slough, Liberty and Heard.

The majority's Eighth Amendment analysis is really interesting, running more than 30 pages and covering lots of ground. And it wraps up this way:

The sentences are cruel in that they impose a 30-year sentence based on the fact that private security contractors in a war zone were armed with government-issued automatic rifles and explosives. They are unusual because they apply Section 924(c) in a manner it has never been applied before to a situation which Congress never contemplated. We again emphasize these defendants can and should be held accountable for the death and destruction they unleashed on the innocent Iraqi civilians who were harmed by their actions. But instead of using the sledgehammer of a mandatory 30-year sentence, the sentencing court should instead use more nuanced tools to impose sentences proportionally tailored to the culpability of each defendant.

Judge Rogers' dissent from this conclusion is also really interesting, and it concludes this way:

Although it is possible to imagine circumstances in which a thirty-year minimum sentence for a private security guard working in a war zone would approach the outer bounds of constitutionality under the Eighth Amendment, this is not that case.  The jury rejected these defendants’ claim that they fired in self-defense, and far more of their fellow security guards chose not to fire their weapons at all that day.  Yet as my colleagues apparently see it, Congress should have included an exception for all such military contractor employees, or, rather, it would have included such an exception if it had only considered the issue.  See Op. 72–74.  Perhaps so, but that is not the question before us. The district court judge made an individualized assessment of an appropriate sentencing package for each of these defendants, and the result is not disproportionate to the defendants’ crimes, let alone grossly, unconstitutionally disproportionate.

I think it possible (but not at all certain) that the feds will seek cert review of this Eighth Amendment decision, and I think it also possible (but not at all certain) that SCOTUS might be interested in this issue in this setting.

August 4, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Eighth Circuit affirms exclusion of juve who moved from Nebraska's sex offender registry

As noted in this prior post last year, a federal judge has blocked Nebraska from putting a 13-year-old boy who moved to the state from Minnesota on its public sex offender registry. Yesterday, an Eighth Circuit panel affirmed this ruling via this opinion which starts this way:

The State of Nebraska, along with the Nebraska State Patrol (NSP) and various state officials (collectively, the State), appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment to A.W. and A.W.'s guardians, John and Jane Doe, enjoining it from applying to A.W. a provision of Nebraska's Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA).  That provision, Neb. Rev. Stat. § 29-4003(1)(a)(iv), applies SORA to any person who, on or after January 1, 1997, "[e]nters the state and is required to register as a sex offender under the laws of another village, town, city, state, territory, commonwealth, or other jurisdiction of the United States."  We hold that this provision does not apply to appellant A.W. and, accordingly, affirm the district court.

The full panel ruling is interesting for how it applied Nebraska's sex offender registry law, but a final footnote highlights some broader constitutional questions the panel saw implicated in the case. Here are excerpts from the footnote:

We note that even if we found "sex offender" to be ambiguous, leaving us with the choice of selecting between two reasonable constructions, one requiring conviction and one not, we would be strongly inclined to affirm the district court.  We believe the application of SORA and its public notification requirement to juveniles adjudicated delinquent in other jurisdictions but not in Nebraska raises serious constitutional concerns under the rights to travel and to equal protection of the laws.  Of the events triggering application of SORA under NSP regulations -- residency, employment, carrying on a vocation, or attending school in Nebraska, 272 Neb. Admin. Code ch. 19 § 003.02 -- it is highly likely a juvenile would be subject to SORA due to residency. This raises troubling implications under the third prong of the right to travel, arising from the Privileges and Immunities and the Privileges or Immunities Clauses of the U.S. Constitution..., as well as under the Equal Protection Clause.  Further, to the extent the purpose of § 29-4003(1)(a)(iv) is to prevent migration into the state of undesirable citizens, application of SORA to A.W. under that provision may raise other constitutional concerns as well. Saenz, 526 U.S. at 503 ("The states have not now, if they ever had, any power to restrict their citizenship to any classes or persons." (quoting Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36, 112 (1872) (Bradley, J., dissenting))). Given the choice between two reasonable constructions, we will generally avoid a construction that raises "grave and doubtful constitutional questions." Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. United States Dep't of Homeland Sec., 738 F.3d 885, 892 (8th Cir. 2013).

August 1, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, July 31, 2017

AP series looks deeply at a "patchwork of justice" for juve lifers after Graham and Miller

The AP has some new in-depth reporting on juvenile LWOP sentences and resentencings in this series labeled "Locked Up For Life."   This lead article published today is headlined "AP Investigation: A patchwork of justice for juvenile lifers," and here are some excerpts from the extended piece:

Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases.  Last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get a chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.

But prison gates don’t just swing open. Instead, uncertainty and opposition stirred by the new mandate have resulted in an uneven patchwork of policies as courts and lawmakers wrestle with these complicated, painful cases.  The odds of release or continued imprisonment vary from state to state, even county to county, in a pattern that can make justice seem arbitrary.

The Associated Press surveyed all 50 states to see how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are re-examining juvenile lifer cases. Some have resentenced and released dozens of those deemed to have rehabilitated themselves and served sufficient time.  Others have delayed review of cases, skirted the ruling on seeming technicalities or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.

Many victims’ relatives are also battling to keep these offenders in prison.  They “already had their chance, their days in court, their due process,” says Candy Cheatham. Her father, Cole Cannon, was killed in 2003 in Alabama by Evan Miller, the 14-year-old whose no-parole sentence was the basis for the 2012 sentencing ban....

The AP’s review found very different brands of justice from place to place.  For years, officials in states with the most juvenile life cases were united in arguing that the Supreme Court’s ban on life without parole did not apply retroactively to inmates already serving such sentences. Now, states are heading in decidedly different directions....

The AP also found that while many states have taken steps to make former teen criminals eligible for parole, in practice, officials regularly deny release.  In Missouri, the parole board has turned down 20 of 23 juvenile lifers, according to the MacArthur Justice Center, which filed a federal lawsuit this year claiming the board is denying the state’s juvenile life-without-parole inmates a meaningful chance for release as required by the Supreme Court....  Maryland, meantime, has 271 juvenile lifers whose sentences have always given them a chance for release.  But no such prisoner has won parole in more than 20 years, prompting a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union....

The impact of last year’s Supreme Court ruling goes far beyond the 2,000-plus offenders who faced mandatory no-parole sentences as teens.  In many states, legal challenges are being mounted on behalf of juveniles sentenced to life without parole at the discretion of a judge or jury, or those who are legally entitled to parole but serving such lengthy terms they are unlikely to ever get out.  The latter group encompasses some 7,300 inmates, according to The Sentencing Project.  The Supreme Court didn’t specifically address these cases, however, and that’s led to different outcomes.

July 31, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

OJ Simpson granted parole after serving nine years in prison for Nevada robbery convictions

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, "O.J. Simpson was granted parole Thursday for convictions connected to a robbery in a Las Vegas about a decade ago. He could be out of jail as early as October. Here is bit more about perhaps the highest profile justice-involved individual:

The ruling came after a hearing in which Simpson testified that he longed to be reunited with his family and children and that he has no interest in returning to the media spotlight.

During the hearing, Simpson was assured by one of his victims that the former football star and actor already has a ride waiting for him when he gets out. “I feel that it’s time to give him a second chance; it’s time for him to go home to his family, his friends,” Bruce Frumong, a sports memorabilia dealer and a friend of Simpson’s, told the Nevada Board of Parole.

Frumong was threatened and robbed by Simpson and some of his associates in a Las Vegas hotel in 2007, and his testimony in that case led to Simpson’s imprisonment. But, Frumong told the board, “if he called me tomorrow and said, ‘Bruce I’m getting out, would you pick me up?….’” At that point, Frumong paused, turned to Simpson and addressed the former USC gridiron star by his nickname: “Juice, I’d be here tomorrow. I mean that, buddy.”

The board went into recess late Thursday morning after hearing more than an hour of testimony from Simpson; his oldest daughter, Arnelle Simpson; and Frumong, who each asked for Simpson’s release. The panel returned about a half hour later and unanimously voted to grant parole....

The commissioners asked Simpson a series of questions about how he had conducted himself in prison, what he thought his life would be like outside of prison and whether he felt humbled by his convictions. Simpson said on several occasions he was “a good guy” and indicated that he mostly wanted to spend time with his family — bemoaning missed graduations and birthdays — and that the state of Nevada might be glad to be rid of him. “No comment,” one of the commissioners said to some laughter.

He expressed regret at being involved with the crime, but drew some pushback from commissioners who took issue with his version of events, in which he said he didn’t know a gun had been brandished in the hotel room during the robbery. But Simpson held to his version, repeatedly apologizing and expressing regret that he had left a wedding in Las Vegas to go recover memorabilia he said was his. “I am sorry things turned out the way they did,” Simpson said. “I had no intent to commit a crime.”

July 20, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Pennsylvania Supreme Court finds state sex offender registration law punitive and thus unconstitutional to apply retroactively

In a big opinion today, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided its state's sex offender registration law, though civil in design, was punitive in practice and thus cannot be applied retroactively. The 55-page majority opinion in Pennsylvania v. Muniz, No. (Pa. July 19, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:

We granted discretionary review to determine whether Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), 42 Pa.C.S. §§9799.10-9799.41, as applied retroactively to appellant Jose M. Muniz, is unconstitutional under the ex post facto clauses of the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions.  The Superior Court held SORNA’s registration provisions are not punishment, and therefore retroactive application to appellant, who was convicted of sex offenses prior to SORNA’s effective date but sentenced afterwards, does not violate either the federal or state ex post facto clauses.  For the following reasons, we reverse and hold: 1) SORNA’s registration provisions constitute punishment notwithstanding the General Assembly’s identification of the provisions as nonpunitive; 2) retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions violates the federal ex post facto clause; and 3) retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions also violates the ex post facto clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The 13-page dissenting opinion authored by Chief Justice Saylor is available here and concludes this way: "Based on the Mendoza-Martinez factors, which I view as almost uniformly suggesting a non-punitive effect, I would conclude that SORNA’s registration requirements do not constitute punishment and do not violate the federal ex post facto clause."

July 19, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27)

Will (and should) OJ Simpson get paroled in Nevada this week?

This USA Today article, headlined "Why O.J. Simpson is expected to be paroled at July 20 hearing," reports on why an infamous state criminal defendant is expected to secure parole in Nevada after serving only about 30% of his imposed prison term. Here are excerpts:

O.J. Simpson, behind bars in a Nevada prison for almost nine years, is eligible for parole Thursday and one of his former attorneys thinks the matter is all but a foregone conclusion that the former football and TV star will be eligible for release on Oct. 1.

"He’s going to get parole," said Yale Galanter, who represented Simpson during the 2008 trial when Simpson was found guilty of 12 counts, including robbery and kidnapping, and sentenced to nine years minimum and 33 years maximum. "Parole in the state of Nevada is really based on how you behave in prison, and by all accounts he’s been a model prisoner. There are no absolutes anytime you’re dealing with administrative boards, but this is as close to a non-personal decision as you can get."

Four members from the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners will consider parole for Simpson at the board offices in Carson City, Nev., with the proceedings set to begin Thursday at 1 p.m. ET. Simpson, 70, will participate by video conference from about 100 miles away at Lovelock Correctional Center, where he has been imprisoned since December 2008.

Parole is largely determined by a point system, and how the commissioners feel about Simpson — or his acquittal in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman — can have no impact on parole, according to Galanter. "It really is based on points," he said. "How long have you served, what your disciplinary record is, what the likelihood of committing another crime is, their age, the facts and the circumstances of the case."

The parole board has rejected the idea that Simpson could be facing more conservative commissioners because he’s imprisoned in northern Nevada. In a statement published on its website, the parole board said all commissioners use the same risk assessment and guidelines, adding, "There is no evidence that the board is aware of that indicates that one location has panel members who are more conservative or liberal than the other location."... "Simpson, with the help of several other men, broke into a Las Vegas hotel room on Sept. 13, 2007, and stole at gunpoint sports memorabilia that he said belonged to him. More than a year later, on Oct. 8, 2008, he was found guilty by a jury on all 12 charges. He was granted parole in 2013 on the armed robbery convictions. Galanter called that "the clearest indicator" Simpson will be granted parole on the remaining counts Thursday.

Simpson is being considered for parole for kidnapping, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and the use of a deadly weapon enhancement. "It’s a fairly routine administrative matter," the attorney said. "It’s more like, 'Mr. Simpson, you’ve been a model prisoner, you have the points, congratulations, do you have anything to say, thank you very much, granted, Oct. 1.' "

Yet, it won’t exactly be routine. The parole board, for example, has said it will issue a decision Thursday so to minimize distractions. The results of some hearings, by contrast, take three weeks to reach the inmate. "The media interest in this one case is a disruption to our operation," the parole board said in its statement. "A decision (on Simpson) is being made at the time of the hearing so that the board’s operation can return to normal as soon as possible after the hearing."...

Simpson will have an opportunity to address the board by video conference as he did during the 2013 hearing. More than 240 media credentials have been approved, according to Keast, who said a dozen satellite trucks are expected at the sites in both in Carson City and Lovelock. If Simpson is paroled, the media figure to return in droves in Oct. 1, when he will be eligible for release from prison.

Notably, Gregg Jarrett at FoxNews believes strongy that OJ shoud not get parole; he explains in this commentary, headlined "O.J. Simpson, up for parole, should never be set free," how the California civil suit finding OJ responsible for wrongful deaths should be sufficient for the Nevada parole board to conclude he presents a risk to public safety.

July 19, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"Under the Cloak of Brain Science: Risk Assessments, Parole, and the Powerful Guise of Objectivity"

The title of this post is the title of this notable note by Jeremy Isard that was brought to my attention by a helpful reader. Here is the abstract:

This Note examines the adoption of two psychological risk assessment protocols used on “lifers” by the California Board of Parole Hearings in preparation for parole suitability hearings.  Probation and parole agencies employ risk assessment protocols across state and federal jurisdictions to measure the likelihood that an individual will pose a danger to society if released from prison.  By examining the adoption and recent reformulation of risk assessment protocols in California, this Note considers some of the myriad demands that courts and administrative agencies place on brain science.  Applying the California parole process as a parable of such pressures, this Note argues that brain science has a unique capacity to supersede legal inquiry itself, and thus should only be used in legal and administrative settings with extreme caution.  

July 18, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, July 17, 2017

When will SCOTUS take up a follow-up to Graham and Miller?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by this recent Atlantic article headlined "The Reckoning Over Young Prisoners Serving Life Without Parole." Here are excerpts:

It’s been more than seven years since the U.S. Supreme Court began to chip away at life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, and lower courts are still wrestling with how to apply the justices’ logic to the American criminal-justice system.

Life sentences are an American institution. According to a recent Sentencing Project report, more than 200,000 people are serving either life in prison or a “virtual” life sentence: They haven’t been explicitly sentenced to spend their natural lives behind bars, but their prison terms extend beyond a typical human lifespan. Of these prisoners, thousands were sentenced as juveniles. More than 2,300 are serving life without parole, often abbreviated LWOP, and another 7,300 have virtual life sentences. Only after they serve decades in prison do members of the latter group typically become eligible for parole....

What happens to those previously sentenced under old laws has been left to the courts, as with three cases decided in Missouri earlier this week. Lower-court judges are forced to face complex legal and moral questions about when and if it’s proper to lock people up for most of their natural life for crimes they committed as minors. As those judges reach different conclusions, each ruling increases the likelihood the Supreme Court will need to reckon with juvenile LWOP again.

I was a bit surprised that SCOTUS took up the Miller case so soon after they decided Graham, and now I find myself a bit surprised that SCOTUS has not seemed much interested in the further development of this new line of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. (Of course, the Montgomery case clarifying that Miller must be applied retroactively is a recent ruling in this arena and it (arguably) broke some new jursprudential ground.)

July 17, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, July 14, 2017

Is there much to — or much to say about — reasonableness review a decade after Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough?

The question in the title of this post was the one kicking around my head as I reviewed a DC Circuit sentencing opinion handed down last week in US v. Pyles, No. 14-3069 (DC Cir. July 7, 2017) (available here). A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this lengthy opinion (nearly 50 pages), in which the panel splits over the reasonableness of a (nearly-top-of-the-guideline-range) sentence of 132-months imprisonment for child pornography distribution.   In addition to finding generally reasonable the extended reasonableness discussion of both the majority and the dissent in Pyles, I was struck by how the discussion and debate over the nature and operation of reasonableness review has really not changed much at all in the 10 years since the Supreme Court gave us Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough.

I am not sure anyone should have expected many major jurisprudential developments in the circuit courts after Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough. But, on this summer Friday morning, I am struggling to really think of any major reasonableness review developments. Though there are some important specific rulings from specific circuits on specific issues (like the Dorvee ruling on child porn sentencings from the Second Circuit), I am not sure I could describe any defining characteristics  of reasonableness review circa 2017 that is distinct in any big way from the basic reasonableness review template set by Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough in 2007.

I would especially like to hear from federal practitioners about whether I might be missing something obvious or subtle when noting the seemingly staid nature of reasonableness review jurisprudence over the last decade.  What really strikes me in this context is the fact that debates over federal sentencing laws, polices and practices have been anything but staid over the last decade even as reasonableness jurisprudence has sailed forward ever so smoothly.

July 14, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, 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 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, July 07, 2017

Split Third Circuit panel finds numerous problems with short federal sentences for child-abusing Army couple

A remarkable and unusual federal sentencing involving a child-abusing couple led yesterday to a remarkable and unusual federal circuit sentencing opinion in US v. Jackson, No. 16-1200 (3d Cir. July 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how the 80-page(!) majority opinion by Judge Cowen gets started:

John and Carolyn Jackson (“John” and “Carolyn”) were convicted of conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child and endangering the welfare of a child under New Jersey law— offenses that were “assimilated” into federal law pursuant to the Assimilative Crimes Act (“ACA”).  The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey sentenced Carolyn to 24 months of imprisonment (as well as three years of supervised release). John received a sentence of three years of probation (together with 400 hours of community service and a $15,000 fine). The government appeals from these sentences.

We will vacate the sentences and remand for resentencing.  Concluding that there is no “sufficiently analogous” offense guideline, the District Court declined to calculate Defendants’ applicable sentencing ranges under the Guidelines. Although we adopt an “elements-based” approach for this inquiry, we conclude that the assault guideline is “sufficiently analogous” to Defendants’ offenses of conviction. Furthermore, the District Court failed to make the requisite findings of fact — under the applicable preponderance of the evidence standard — with respect to this Guidelines calculation as well as the application of the statutory sentencing factors.  We also agree with the government that the District Court, while it could consider what would happen if Defendants had been prosecuted in state court, simply went too far in this case by focusing on state sentencing practices to the exclusion of federal sentencing principles. Finally, the sentences themselves were substantively unreasonable.

Here is how the dissenting opinion by Judge McKee gets started:

It is impossible for anyone with an ounce of compassion to read through this transcript without becoming extraordinarily moved by allegations about what these children had to endure. Had the defendants been convicted of assault, or crimes necessarily involving conduct that was in the same “ballpark” as assault as defined under New Jersey law, I would readily agree that this matter had to be remanded for resentencing using the federal guidelines that govern assault.  However, the district court held a ten and a half hour sentencing hearing in an extraordinarily difficult attempt to sort through the emotion and unproven allegations and sentence defendants for their crimes rather than the conduct the government alleged at trial and assumes in its brief. I believe the court appropriately did so pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §3553(a). Accordingly, I must respectfully dissent.

Before I begin my discussion, however, I must note that the defendants in this case were acquitted of the only federal offenses with which they were charged: assault with a dangerous weapon, with intent to do bodily harm, and assault resulting in serious bodily injury.  As I discuss more fully in Section II, these assault charges seem to drive the government’s argument and the Majority’s analysis.  In order to minimize confusion about the precise nature of the charges in this case and the conduct that was proven, a chart listing each of the charges and their outcomes is attached as an addendum to this dissent.

There are lots of lots of interesting elements to this unusual case, but the rarity of reversals of sentences as substantively unreasonable led me to read that part of the majority opinion most closely.  The majority here repeatedly finds flaws in how the district court weighed various permissible § 3553(a) considerations.  And the discussion begins by noting that the guidelines called for sentences of perhaps 20 or more years for these defendants so that "probation for John and 24 months’ imprisonment for Carolyn represented enormous downward variances, which require correspondingly robust explanations for why such lenience was warranted."

July 7, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Divided California Supreme Court decides Prop 47 did not alter rules for retroactivity of Prop 36 three-strikes reform

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "California Supreme Court makes it harder for three-strike prisoners to get sentence reductions," earlier this week the top court in California divided over the resolution of an intricate and interesting retroactivity question. Here are the details:

Judges have broad authority in refusing to lighten the sentences of “three-strike” inmates, despite recent ballot measures aimed at reducing the state’s prison population, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday. In a 4-3 decision, the court said judges may freely decline to trim sentences for inmates who qualify for reductions under a 2012 ballot measure intended to reform the state’s tough three-strikes sentencing law.

Justice Leondra R. Kruger, an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown, joined the more conservative justices to reach the result. The decision aimed to resolve questions posed by two ballot measures in recent years to reduce the population of the state’s overburdened prison system.

Proposition 36 allowed three-strike inmates to obtain sentence reductions if their third strike was neither serious nor violent. Judges were entitled to refuse a reduction if they believed the inmate posed an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” They could consider the inmate’s history, disciplinary record in prison or other evidence.

Two years later, voters passed another ballot measure to reduce the prison population.  That measure, Proposition 47, created a definition of a safety risk that judges were required to apply.  Inmates could be denied a sentence reduction only if they were deemed to pose an unreasonable risk of committing certain crimes, including a killing, a sexually violent offense, child molestation or other serious or violent felony punishable by life in prison or the death penalty.

The court majority, led by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, said Monday that definition did not apply to three-strikers, who have been sentenced to 25 years to life for repeated crimes.  If it had, Cantil-Sakauye wrote, it would “result in the release of more recidivist serious and/or violent offenders than had been originally contemplated under Proposition 36.”

Cantil-Sakauye noted that none of the ballot materials for Proposition 47 mentioned that it would affect three-strike prisoners. Proposition 47 allowed judges to reduce some nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.  “Based on the analysis and summary they prepared, there is no indication that the Legislative Analyst or the Attorney General were even aware that the measure might amend the resentencing criteria governing the Three Strikes Reform Act,” the chief justice wrote.

The ruling came in appeals filed by David J. Valencia and Clifford Paul Chaney, who were both sentenced to 25 years to life under the three strikes law and both eligible for reduced terms under Proposition 36. Valencia’s criminal history included kidnapping, making criminal threats and striking his wife.  Chaney’s record included armed robbery and three convictions for driving under the influence....

Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Brown’s two other appointees — Justices Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar — noted in dissents that Proposition 47 clearly stated that the definition would apply throughout the criminal code.  The more restrictive definition advanced “the goal of concentrating state corrections spending on the most dangerous offenders,” Cuéllar wrote, and gave three-strike prisoners only “a marginally stronger basis” for winning sentence reductions.

Liu said the court majority had concluded “that the drafters of Proposition 47 pulled a fast one on an uninformed public.” But it is also possible that voters, unhappy about the huge amounts of money being spent on prisons, “knew exactly what they were doing,” Liu wrote.  Monday’s ruling “disserves the initiative process, the inmates who are now its beneficiaries, and the judicial role itself,” he said.

The full 110-page(!) opinion in this case is available at this link.

July 5, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal district judge explains his remarkable reasons for rejecting an unremarkable plea deal in heroin dealing prosecution

A helpful reader alerted me to a fascinating opinion issued last week by US District Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia in US v. Walker, No. 2:17-cr-00010 (SD W. Va. June 26, 2017) (available here).  The full opinion is a must read, and here is its conclusion:

My twenty-two years of imposing long prison sentences for drug crimes persuades me that the effect of law enforcement on the supply side of the illegal drug market is insufficient to solve the heroin and opioid crisis at hand. I also see scant evidence that prohibition is preventing the growth of the demand side of the drug market. Nevertheless, policy reform, coordinated education efforts, and expansion of treatment programs are not within my bailiwick. I may only enforce the laws of illicit drug prohibition.

The law is the law, and I am satisfied that enforcing the law through public adjudications focuses attention on the heroin and opioid crisis.  The jury trial reveals the dark details of drug distribution and abuse to the community in a way that a plea bargained guilty plea cannot.  A jury trial tells a story.  The jury members listening to the evidence come away with personally impactful information about the deadly and desperate heroin and opioid crisis existing in their community.  They are educated in the process of performing their civic duty and are likely to communicate their experience in the courtroom to family members and friends.  Moreover, the attendant media attention that a jury trial occasions communicates to the community that such conduct is unlawful and that the law is upheld and enforced.  The communication of a threat of severe punishment acts as an effective deterrent.  As with other criminalized conduct, the shame of a public conviction and prison sentence specifically deters the sentenced convict from committing the crime again — at least for so long as he is imprisoned.

Over time, jury verdicts involving the distribution of heroin and opioids reinforce condemnation of the conduct by the public at large. In turn, respect for the law propagates.117 This respect for the law may eventually reduce such criminal conduct.

The secrecy surrounding plea bargains in heroin and opioid cases frequently undermines respect for the law and deterrence of crime.  The bright light of the jury trial deters crime, enhances respect for the law, educates the public, and reinforces their sense of safety much more than a contract entered into in the shadows of a private meeting in the prosecutor’s office.

For the reasons stated, I REJECT the plea agreement.

It will be quite interesting to see if the parties appeal this rejection of the plea agreement or if the defendant decides to plea without the benefit of any agreement (which I believe must be accepted if the judge finds it is voluntary).

July 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Monday, July 03, 2017

Highlighting Justice Gorsuch's interesting concurrence in Hicks on the perils of permitting sentencing error to persist

Adam Liptak has this effective new article in the New York Times about the effectiveness of the new Justice on the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. The article is headlined "Confident and Assertive, Gorsuch Hurries to Make His Mark," and it develops the point that Justice Gorsuch's "early opinions were remarkably self-assured." The article and that line reminded me that I have been meaning to highlight Justice Gorsuch's remarkable little concurrence on the final day of the term in the Hicks v. US, No. 16-7806 (S. Ct. June 26, 2017) (available here).

Hicks is a quirky case in a quirky posture after the defendant was sentenced under the wrong crack sentencing law during the transitional uncertainty after the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. The government admits in its briefing to SCOTUS that Hicks' 20-year mandatory-minimum sentence was legally erroneous, but the government asked SCOTUS to remand the case to the Fifth Circuit to conduct the full plain error analysis. The Supreme Court did just that via a short order, but the Chief Justice joined by Justice Thomas dissented with a short opinion suggesting that SCOTUS should make a plain error decision before being willing to vacate the judgment below. This dissent, it seems, prompted Judge Gorsuch to want to defend the Court's action and in so doing he had a lot of interesting things to say. These passages from the end of his concurrence in particular caught my attention:

A plain legal error infects this judgment—a man was wrongly sentenced to 20 years in prison under a defunct statute.  No doubt, too, there’s a reasonable probability that cleansing this error will yield a different outcome.  Of course, Mr. Hicks’s conviction won’t be undone, but the sentencing component of the district court’s judgment is likely to change, and change substantially. For experience surely teaches that a defendant entitled to a sentence consistent with 18 U.S.C. §3553(a)’s parsimony provision, rather than pursuant to the rigors of a statutory mandatory minimum, will often receive a much lower sentence.  So there can be little doubt Mr. Hicks’s substantial rights are, indeed, implicated.  Cf. Molina-Martinez v. United States, 578 U. S. ___, ___ (2016).  When it comes to the fourth prong of plain error review, it’s clear Mr. Hicks also enjoys a reasonable probability of success.  For who wouldn’t hold a rightly diminished view of our courts if we allowed individuals to linger longer in prison than the law requires only because we were unwilling to correct our own obvious mistakes?  Cf. United States v. Sabillon-Umana, 772 F.3d 1328, 1333 (CA10 2014).

Now this Court has no obligation to rove about looking for errors to correct in every case in this large country, and I agree with much in Justice Scalia’s dissent in Nunez v. United States, 554 U.S. 911, 911–913 (2008), suggesting caution..... But, respectfully, I am unaware of any such reason here.  Besides, if the only remaining objection to vacating the judgment here is that, despite our precedent routinely permitting the practice, we should be wary of remanding a case without first deciding for ourselves the latter elements of the plain error test, that task is so easily done that in this case that I cannot think why it should not be done. Indeed, the lone peril in the present case seems to me the possibility that we might permit the government to deny someone his liberty longer than the law permits only because we refuse to correct an obvious judicial error.

Based on Justice Gorsuch's votes in a few other criminal cases, early indications suggest that he is far more often going to vote in favor of the government rather than in favor of criminal defendants across the range of criminal law and procedure cases.  But his decision to write separately in this little case to push back at the dissenters here with this particular language leads me to wonder if Justice Gorsuch (like the Justice he replaced) might prove to be an especially interesting and unpredictable vote and voice in federal sentencing cases in particular.

July 3, 2017 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The rest of SCOTUSblog's symposium on OT 2016 death penalty decisions

I noted in this post on Tuesday that the folks at SCOTUSblog had a new "Special Feature" in the form of a "Symposium on October Term 2016’s death-penalty decisions."  In the prior post I linked to the first four entries in this symposium, and here are now the last four:

June 29, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

SCOTUSblog begins symposium on OT 2016 death penalty decisions

I will not likely remember the Supreme Court term just completed, October Term 2016, as especially notable for sentencing developments.  There were no big blockbuster sentencing cases, although the Beckles vagueness ruling was certainly consequential and a few other rulings will surely launch a few law review article.  And, of course, in the intricate and endlessly litigated world of the death penalty, a mixed bag of smaller SCOTUS rulings still add up to something worth watching (especially with the added bit of uncertainty that comes with Justice Gorsuch replacing Justice Scalia).

Helpfully for those who just cannot get enough of the SCOTUS capital docket, the folks over at SCOTUSblog have this new "Special Feature" in the form of a "Symposium on October Term 2016’s death-penalty decisions."   Here are links to the four pieces already up at SCOTUSblog, and I surmise more be coming:

June 27, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Pennsylvania Supreme Court issues major Miller ruling declaring presumption against the imposition of LWOP on juvenile killers

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court yesterday handed down a major ruling on the application and implementation of the Supreme Court's modern Miller Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. The lengthy ruling in Pennsylvania v. Batts, No. 45 MAP 2016 (Pa. June 26, 2017 (available here), gets started this way:

Qu’eed Batts (“Batts”) was convicted of a first-degree murder that he committed when he was fourteen years old. His case returns for the second time on discretionary review for this Court to determine whether the sentencing court imposed an illegal sentence when it resentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After careful review, we conclude, based on the findings made by the sentencing court and the evidence upon which it relied, that the sentence is illegal in light of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (holding that a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, imposed upon a juvenile without consideration of the defendant’s age and the attendant characteristics of youth, is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016) (holding that the Miller decision announced a new substantive rule of constitutional law that applies retroactively and clarifying the limited circumstances in which a life-without-parole sentence is permissible for a crime committed when the defendant was a juvenile).

Pursuant to our grant of allowance of appeal, we further conclude that to effectuate the mandate of Miller and Montgomery, procedural safeguards are required to ensure that life-without-parole sentences are meted out only to “the rarest of juvenile offenders” whose crimes reflect “permanent incorrigibility,” “irreparable corruption” and “irretrievable depravity,” as required by Miller and Montgomery.  Thus, as fully developed in this Opinion, we recognize a presumption against the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender.  To rebut the presumption, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is incapable of rehabilitation.

Because Pennsylvania has a large JLWOP population impacted by Miller and because proving rehabilitation incapacity beyond a reasonable doubt seem to be perhaps close to impossible, this Batts ruling strikes me as a  big deal jurisprudentially and practically.  (And, for any remaining Apprendi/Blakely fans, it bears noting that the Batts opinion expressly rejects the defendant's contention that a "jury must make the finding regarding a juvenile’s eligibility to be sentenced to life without parole.)

June 27, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, June 26, 2017

SCOTUS denies cert on Wisconsin case with defendant challenging risk-assessment sentencing

I had thought I had reported on all the blog-worthy action in the the Supreme Court on this busy day via prior posts here and here and here ... until one of my favorite colleagues alerted me to the fact that today's SCOTUS order list also included a denial of cert in Loomis V. Wisconsin.  This local press article discusses thie cert denial under the headline "Supreme Court refuses to hear Wisconsin predictive crime assessment case."

As some may recall from some prior postings, Loomis concerned a due process challenge to the use of risk-assessment instruments at sentencing.  And, as noted here, the Supreme Court was interested enough in this issue to invite the Solicitor General to file a brief expressing the views of the United States.  But now it seems SCOTUS was not quite yet ready to take up this interesting and important issue in this case.

Some prior related posts on Loomis case:

June 26, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS rules IAC of appellate counsel in state postconviction proceedings does not excuse procedural default

Resolving a technical and important issue, the US Supreme Court this morning in Davila v. Davis, No. 16-6219 (S. Ct. June 26, 2017) (available here), refused to extend some inmate-friendly habeas jurisprudence. The opinion for the Court in the 5-4 ruling was authored by Justice Thomas and it begins this way:

Federal habeas courts reviewing convictions from state courts will not consider claims that a state court refused to hear based on an adequate and independent state procedural ground.  A state prisoner may be able to overcome this bar, however, if he can establish “cause” to excuse the procedural default and demonstrate that he suffered actual prejudice from the alleged error.  An attorney error does not qualify as “cause” to excuse a procedural default unless the error amounted to constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel. Because a prisoner does not have a constitutional right to counsel in state postconviction proceedings, ineffective assistance in those proceedings does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default. See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722 (1991).

In Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U. S. 1 (2012), and Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U. S. 413 (2013), this Court announced a narrow exception to Coleman’s general rule.  That exception treats ineffective assistance by a prisoner’s state postconviction counsel as cause to overcome the default of a single claim — ineffective assistance of trial counsel — in a single context — where the State effectively requires a defendant to bring that claim in state postconviction proceedings rather than on direct appeal. The question in this case is whether we should extend that exception to allow federal courts to consider a different kind of defaulted claim — ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. We decline to do so.

The dissent authored by Justice Breyer and joined by the other more liberal justces begins this way:

As the Court explains, normally a federal habeas court cannot hear a state prisoner’s claim that his trial lawyer was, constitutionally speaking, “ineffective” if the prisoner failed to assert that claim in state court at the appropriate time, that is, if he procedurally defaulted the claim.  See ante, at 1 (the prisoner’s failure to raise his federal claim at the initial-review state collateral proceeding amounts to an “adequate and independent state procedural ground” for denying habeas relief).

But there are equitable exceptions. In Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U. S. 1 (2012), and later in Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U. S. 413 (2013), we held that, despite the presence of a procedural default, a federal court can nonetheless hear a prisoner’s claim that his trial counsel was ineffective, where (1) the framework of state procedural law “makes it highly unlikely in a typical case that a defendant will have a meaningful opportunity to raise a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal,” id., at 429; (2) in the state “‘initial-review collateral proceeding, there was no counsel or counsel in that proceeding was ineffective,’” ibid. (quoting Martinez, 566 U. S., at 17); and (3) “the underlying ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim is a substantial one, which is to say that the prisoner must demonstrate that the claim has some merit,” id., at 14.

In my view, this same exception (with the same qualifications) should apply when a prisoner raises a constitutional claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. See, e.g., Evitts v. Lucey, 469 U. S. 387, 396 (1985) (Constitution guarantees a defendant an effective appellate counsel, just as it guarantees a defendant an effective trial counsel).

June 26, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

A bit of criminal justice interest in last big SCOTUS order list of Term

The last big Supreme Court order list of OT16 is available here, and an assortment of cert grants and denials, summary opinions and concurrences and dissents are notable.  For criminal justice fans in particular, the denial of a big Second Amendment case out of California and some discussion around the GVRs in a few cases seem especially noteworthy.  And the discussion around the (partial) reversal of an erroneous mandatory minimum crack sentence in Hicks v. US will merit its own posy later today because of some of the comments by the newest Justice.  But first we have some more merits opinions coming (and I have to catch a plane, so perhaps commentors can review anything I missed in transit).

June 26, 2017 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 23, 2017

SCOTUS decides defendant can show prejudice from bad plea advice and prevail on Sixth Amendment claim even with no defense to charge

The Supreme Court this morning handed down three more opinions, and the one notable criminal case decided today was Lee v. United States, No. 16–327 (S. Ct. June 23, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice wrote the opinion for the Court, which starts and ends this way:

Petitioner Jae Lee was indicted on one count of possessing ecstasy with intent to distribute.  Although he has lived in this country for most of his life, Lee is not a United States citizen, and he feared that a criminal conviction might affect his status as a lawful permanent resident.  His attorney assured him there was nothing to worry about — the Government would not deport him if he pleaded guilty.  So Lee, who had no real defense to the charge, opted to accept a plea that carried a lesser prison sentence than he would have faced at trial.

Lee’s attorney was wrong: The conviction meant that Lee was subject to mandatory deportation from this country.  Lee seeks to vacate his conviction on the ground that, in accepting the plea, he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment.  Everyone agrees that Lee received objectively unreasonable representation. The question presented is whether he can show he was prejudiced as a result....

We cannot agree that it would be irrational for a defendant in Lee’s position to reject the plea offer in favor of trial. But for his attorney’s incompetence, Lee would have known that accepting the plea agreement would certainly lead to deportation. Going to trial?  Almost certainly. If deportation were the “determinative issue” for an individual in plea discussions, as it was for Lee; if that individual had strong connections to this country and no other, as did Lee; and if the consequences of taking a chance at trial were not markedly harsher than pleading, as in this case, that “almost” could make all the difference. Balanced against holding on to some chance of avoiding deportation was a year or two more of prison time.  See id., at 6.  Not everyone in Lee’s position would make the choice to reject the plea. But we cannot say it would be irrational to do so.

Lee’s claim that he would not have accepted a plea had he known it would lead to deportation is backed by substantial and uncontroverted evidence.  Accordingly we conclude Lee has demonstrated a “reasonable probability that, but for [his] counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill, 474 U.S., at 59.

Justice Thomas wrote a dissent joined by Justice Alito which gets started this way:

The Court today holds that a defendant can undo a guilty plea, well after sentencing and in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt, because he would have chosen to pursue a defense at trial with no reasonable chance of success if his attorney had properly advised him of the immigration consequences of his plea.  Neither the Sixth Amendment nor this Court’s precedents support that conclusion.  I respectfully dissent.

June 23, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Today's SCOTUS CJ scorecard: government wins in two procedural cases, defendant wins in one substantive case

The Supreme Court this morning handed down opinions in three cases, all three of which involve intricate criminal law and procedure issues. I am going to copy and tweak here the summary of all the action from How Appealing for ease of exposition: 

1. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court in Maslenjak v. United States, No. 16-309. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch issued an opinion, in which Justice Clarence Thomas joined, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. And Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. issued an opinion concurring in the judgment. 

2. Justice Stephen G. Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court in Turner v. United States, No. 15-1503. Justice Kagan issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined. 

3. And Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court in Weaver v. Massachusetts, No. 16-240.  Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion, in which Justice Gorsuch joined.  Justice Alito issued an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Gorsuch also joined.  And Justice Breyer issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Kagan joined. 

As the title of this post indicates, and as the pattern of votes suggests, the defendant prevailed in first of these listed cases, Maslenjak, which concerned the substantive reach of a federal criminal statute.  The government prevailed in the other two cases, one of which concerned the application of Brady (Turner) and the other of which concerned what types of errors can be found harmless in Strickland ineffective assistance analysis (Weaver).

For a variety of reasons, the procedural rulings on behalf of the government in Turner and Weaver seem like a much bigger deal than the Maslenjak ruling, perhaps especially because the government had won below in Turner and Weaver and so it could have been reasonably assumed that the Supreme Court took up the cases in order to reverse the outcome.  Also, of course, issues related to the application of Brady and Strickland impact so many cases, especially on collateral appeal.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has this helpful summary post on all these cases simply and appropriately titled "Materiality."

June 22, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Henry Montgomery (of Montgomery v. Louisiana) re-sentenced to life with parole

As reported in this lengthy local article, a defendant whose surname means a lot to a lot of juvenile offenders long ago sentenced to life without parole was resentenced today in Louisiana. Here are just some of the details of the latest chapter of a truly a remarkable case:

A Baton Rouge judge Wednesday gave a 71-year-old man convicted of killing a sheriff's deputy when he was 17 a chance to leave prison before he dies.

Henry Montgomery has been locked up for 54 years in the killing of East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputy Charles Hurt. But Judge Richard Anderson on Wednesday re-sentenced Montgomery to a life sentence with the possibility of parole, following a pair of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings — including Montgomery's own case — that say defendants convicted of murder for killings committed as juveniles cannot automatically be sent away to serve life without parole.

"This is not an easy thing for me to do … because one man is dead and the family is still living through the consequences. But the law is the law," said Anderson, referencing the higher court decisions that said sentences of life without parole for young killers must be "rare and uncommon" and reserved only for those who display "irretrievable depravity."

Anderson's decision during the brief hearing came nearly two months after defense attorneys presented the judge with extensive testimony about Montgomery's conduct in prison and the rough circumstances of his childhood.  Officials from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where Montgomery has spent nearly all of the last half-century, described him as a trustworthy inmate and reliable worker who accumulated a remarkably low number of infractions during his time at the once-notorious prison.

Lindsay Jarrell Blouin, an East Baton Rouge Parish public defender who represents Montgomery, also detailed rough circumstances of Montgomery's childhood, which she wrote included neglect, physical abuse and a lack of education. Court filings also detailed Montgomery's mental limitations, including an IQ estimated by psychologists during his 1969 trial as somewhere in the 70s....

"He's been a model prisoner for 54 years, he's been a mentor and, by all appearances, he's been rehabilitated," Anderson said. "It does not appear (Montgomery) is someone the Supreme Court would consider 'irreparably corrupt.'"

Montgomery was walking near Scotlandville High School on Nov. 13, 1963, when he ran from Hurt and other deputies who'd arrived to investigate a theft complaint called in by the school.  Hurt tried to detain Montgomery, according to trial transcripts, and Montgomery killed him with a single shot from a .22-caliber pistol.  Hurt's partner that day wrote in an initial report that Hurt had his hands up and was backing away when Montgomery shot him.  But the officer testified at trial that he was some 350 yards away and couldn't see Hurt or Montgomery at the moment of the shooting, according to recent filings by Montgomery's attorneys.  The deputy was wearing plain clothes, Montgomery's attorneys wrote, and the teenager told investigators following his arrest that he thought Hurt was reaching for a gun when he fired. "This was a terrible, split-second decision made by a scared 17-year-old boy who thought he was going to be killed."

Hurt's family did not attend Wednesday's hearing.  But in April, as Anderson considered evidence in the case, Hurt's two daughters took the stand to testify to how that single gunshot upended their family, snapped previously happy childhoods and continues to reverberate in painful ways decades later.  Becky Wilson and Linda Woods both told Anderson through tears that they'd come to forgive and pray for Montgomery.  The deputy's daughters met privately with Montgomery at Angola earlier this year.

But the sisters, as well as Jean-Paul deGravelles, Hurt's grandson who's now a Lafourche Parish sheriff's deputy, all said they felt Montgomery received a just sentence when a jury in 1969 found him guilty of murder "without capital punishment" — a verdict that spared Montgomery the death penalty but sent him away for the remainder of his life.

Anderson echoed that view, noting from the bench that he felt Montgomery's life-without-parole sentence was fair. But the law has changed, Anderson said, regardless of whether the judge agrees with the Supreme Court rulings.

Prosecutors didn't argue for either life with or without parole for Montgomery but noted the gravity of the crime and its impact on the victim's family.  Lawyers with the Attorney General's Office who represented the state at the hearing declined to comment Wednesday.  East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Anderson's "difficult but well-reasoned decision" acknowledged the suffering caused by Montgomery but was bound by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.

Wilson, who was 9 years old when her father was killed, said Wednesday she believes Anderson reached "the only decision he could" under current law in offering Montgomery a chance at parole and said she appreciates the judge's careful consideration of the case.  "As for Mr. Montgomery, I just pray for God’s perfect will to be done in his life and hope and pray he is blessed wherever he might be, today and in his future," Wilson said by email. "If he should be paroled, I hope, if given the opportunity, he will use his life experience to help keep young men and women from going down the same path he went down. Also, I pray that he will truly be thankful and humbled by the gift of freedom."

Montgomery's 1969 conviction came after the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned an earlier verdict, ruling that widespread and often racially tinged attention to the case "permeated the atmosphere" in Baton Rouge during his first trial.  The court ruled that "no one could reasonably say that the verdict and the sentence were lawfully obtained." Anderson on Wednesday noted the jury in Montgomery's second trial in 1969 chose not to impose a death sentence even though the law allowed it.  Montgomery's attorneys argued earlier that the jury's decision for a lesser sentence suggested they didn't see Montgomery as among the worst killers.

Anderson also admonished Montgomery, who stood before the judge stooped with his hands closely shackled to a belly chain, to take advantage of his opportunity at freedom.  Montgomery didn't speak during the hearing and was quickly led away after the judge read out his new sentence.  Blouin, his attorney, said after the hearing that Montgomery was pleased with the decision but "still grieves for the victim's family and the impact this has had on them."

The next step for Montgomery will be a request for a parole board hearing.  He's already served more than twice as many years as required before parole consideration and has met other requirements to apply for release. Keith Nordyke, an attorney with the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit firm representing Montgomery in the parole process, said a hearing could come before the end of the year.

June 21, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Close examination of some JLWOP girls who should benefit from Graham and Miller

The latest issue of The Nation has two lengthy articles examining the application and implementation of the Supreme Court's modern juvenile offender Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  Both are good reads, but the second one listed below covers especially interesting ground I have not seen covered extensively before.  Here are their full headlines, with links, followed by an excerpt from the second of the pieces: 

"The Troubled Resentencing of America’s Juvenile Lifers: When SCOTUS outlawed mandatory juvenile life without parole, advocates celebrated — but the outcome has been anything but fair" by Jessica Pishko

"Lisa, Laquanda, Machelle, and Kenya Were Sentenced as Children to Die in Prison: Decades later, a Supreme Court ruling could give them their freedom" by Danielle Wolffe

The country’s approximately 50 female JLWOP inmates represent a small fraction of the juvenile-lifer population, but the number of women serving life sentences overall is growing more quickly than that of men, according to a study by Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project. The women interviewed for this article also told me that they felt less informed about what was going on with their cases legally than their male counterparts.

The culpability of girls in their commission of crimes is often entwined with their role as caretakers for younger siblings. They’re also more likely to suffer sexual abuse during childhood. A 2012 study found that 77 percent of JLWOP girls, but only 21 percent of juvenile lifers overall, experienced sexual abuse. Internalized shame made them easier targets for violence by male correctional officers. From my own conversations with these women, many were teenage mothers who were separated from their babies shortly after giving birth. Others were incarcerated throughout their viable childbearing years.

I have been traveling the country to interview female juvenile lifers. Every time I visited one of these women in prison, I was haunted by the things we had in common. We were all approaching middle age. As a young adult, I too had gone off the rails and done dangerous things—the sort of things that could easily have gotten me arrested, even killed. Yet unlike the women I was interviewing, I had the option of leaving those aspects of my past behind.

The women I spoke with represent a distinct minority among juvenile lifers. They do not fit a narrative that is often centered around young men. Their stories are rarely told, even when the law demands it. The Miller and Montgomery decisions call for consideration of a teenager’s upbringing and maturation in prison, but as these women describe it, their experiences are rarely explored in depth in the courtroom. Instead, women’s resentencing is all too often shaped by ignorance and sexism. By interviewing these women, I hoped to share their unheard stories with the public. I hoped, too, that their unconventional stories might help us to reconsider our attitudes toward juvenile crime and rehabilitation—attitudes that still pervade the resentencing process.

June 21, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 19, 2017

SCOTUS declares unconstitutional North Carolina criminal law restricting sex offender access to social media

Today was a big day for the First Amendment in the US Supreme Court.  In addition to a notable First Amendment trademark ruling, the Court handed down a widely anticipated ruling in Packingham v. North Carolina, No. 15–1194 (S. Ct. June 19. 2017) (available here), dealing with a state law restricting internet access for sex offenders.  Here is how the Court's majority opinion in Packingham, authored by Justice Kennedy, gets started and a key closing paragraph:

In 2008, North Carolina enacted a statute making it a felony for a registered sex offender to gain access to a number of websites, including commonplace social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.  The question presented is whether that law is permissible under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, applicable to the States under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment....

In sum, to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. It is unsettling to suggest that only a limited set of websites can be used even by persons who have completed their sentences.  Even convicted criminals — and in some instances especially convicted criminals — might receive legitimate benefits from these means for access to the world of ideas, in particular if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives.

The majority opinion in Packingham is quite short, but that does not mean it does not pack a punch.  In fact, Justice Alito authored an extended concurrence which was joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas in order to lament some of the "undisciplined dicta" in Justice Kennedy's short majority opinion.  Here is how the concurrence begins:

The North Carolina statute at issue in this case was enacted to serve an interest of “surpassing importance.” New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 757 (1982) — but it has a staggering reach.  It makes it a felony for a registered sex offender simply to visit a vast array of websites, including many that appear to provide no realistic opportunity for communications that could facilitate the abuse of children.  Because of the law’s extraordinary breadth, I agree with the Court that it violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

I cannot join the opinion of the Court, however, because of its undisciplined dicta.  The Court is unable to resist musings that seem to equate the entirety of the internet with public streets and parks.  Ante, at 4–5.  And this language is bound to be interpreted by some to mean that the States are largely powerless to restrict even the most dangerous sexual predators from visiting any internet sites, including, for example, teenage dating sites and sites designed to permit minors to discuss personal problems with their peers.  I am troubled by the implications of the Court’s unnecessary rhetoric.

(Though the issues in Packingham are no laughing matter, I am getting a giggle thinking about whether the phrase "undisciplined dicta" would better serve as my stage name if I was part of a nerdy rap band or just ought to be made into a rubber-stamp to help all my students add that commentary to course evaluations.)

June 19, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

By a 5-4 vote, SCOTUS decides failure of Alabama courts to provide expert mental health assistance to capital defendant was unreasonable

The Supreme Court handed down a notable split decision in a capital case this morning in McWilliams v. Dunn, No. 16-5294 (S. Ct. June 19, 2017)(available here). Justice Breyer authored the opinion for the Court for the usual coalition of Justices most skeptical of application of the death penalty, and that opinion starts this way:

Thirty-one years ago, petitioner James Edmond McWilliams, Jr., was convicted of capital murder by an Alabama jury and sentenced to death.  McWilliams challenged his sentence on appeal, arguing that the State had failed to provide him with the expert mental health assistance the Constitution requires, but the Alabama courts refused to grant relief. We now consider, in this habeas corpus case, whether the Alabama courts’ refusal was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). We hold that it was.  Our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), clearly established that, when certain threshold criteria are met, the State must provide an indigent defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” Id., at 83.  Petitioner in this case did not receive that assistance.

A sharp dissent in McWilliams, which runs longer than the majority opinion, is authored by Justice Alito (and joined by the newest Justice), and it starts this way:

We granted review in this case to decide a straightforward legal question on which the lower courts are divided: whether our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), clearly established that an indigent defendant whose mental health will be a significant factor at trial is entitled to the assistance of a psychiatric expert who is a member of the defense team instead of a neutral expert who is available to assist both the prosecution and the defense.

The answer to that question is plain: Ake did not clearly establish that a defendant is entitled to an expert who is a member of the defense team.  Indeed, “Ake appears to have been written so as to be deliberately ambiguous on this point, thus leaving the issue open for future consideration.” W. LaFave, Criminal Law § 8.2(d), p. 449 (5th ed. 2010) (LaFave).  Accordingly, the proper disposition of this case is to affirm the judgment below.

The Court avoids that outcome by means of a most unseemly maneuver.  The Court declines to decide the question on which we granted review and thus leaves in place conflicting lower court decisions regarding the meaning of a 32-year-old precedent.  That is bad enough.  But to make matters worse, the Court achieves this unfortunate result by deciding a separate question on which we expressly declined review.  And the Court decides that factbound question without giving Alabama a fair opportunity to brief the issue.

June 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

SCOTUS summarily reverses Sixth Circuit reversal of Ohio death sentence

The US Supreme Court this morning issued this order list that did not include any grants of certiorari, but did include a summary reversal in the Ohio capital habeas case of Jenkins v. Hutton, No. 16-1116 (S. Ct. June 19, 2017) (available here).  Here are some key passages from this brief per curiam opinion: 

According to Hutton, the court gave the jurors insufficient guidance [when deciding on whether to recommend a death sentence] because it failed to tell them that, when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, they could consider only the two aggravating factors they had found during the guilt phase.  Hutton, however, had not objected to the trial court’s instruction or raised this argument on direct appeal, and the District Court on federal habeas concluded that his due process claim was procedurally defaulted....

Nonetheless, the Sixth Circuit held that the [miscarriage of justice] exception justified reviewing his claim. The court gave two reasons: First, Hutton was not eligible to receive a death sentence because “the jury had not made the necessary finding of the existence of aggravating circumstances.” 839 F.3d, at 498–499.  And second, since the trial court “gave the jury no guidance as to what to consider as aggravating circumstances” when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, the record did not show that the jury’s death recommendation “was actually based on a review of any valid aggravating circumstances.” Id., at 500....

The Sixth Circuit was wrong to reach the merits of Hutton’s claim.... Hutton has not argued that the trial court improperly instructed the jury about aggravating circumstances at the guilt phase.  Nor did the Sixth Circuit identify any such error. Instead, the instruction that Hutton contends is incorrect, and that the Sixth Circuit analyzed, was given at the penalty phase of trial.  That penalty phase instruction plainly had no effect on the jury’s decision — delivered after the guilt phase and pursuant to an unchallenged instruction — that aggravating circumstances were present when Hutton murdered Mitchell.

The Sixth Circuit’s second reason for reaching the merits rests on a legal error.  Under Sawyer, a court may review a procedurally defaulted claim if, “but for a constitutional error, no reasonable jury would have found the petitioner eligible for the death penalty.”  505 U.S., at 336 (emphasis added).  Here, the alleged error was the trial court’s failure to specify that, when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, the jury could consider only the aggravating circumstances it found at the guilt phase.   Assuming such an error can provide a basis for excusing default, the Sixth Circuit should have considered the following: Whether, given proper instructions about the two aggravating circumstances, a reasonable jury could have decided that those aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances.

June 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Might judicial estoppel continue to preclude Ohio from moving forward with a three-drug lethal injection protocol?

As previously noted here, today is the day for the Sixth Circuit oral argument in its rehearing en banc of the State of Ohio's appeal of a lower court stay blocking Ohio from using its latest three-drug protocol to execute condemned murderers.  One basis for stay, as reported here, was the plan for Ohio to use midazolam as the first drug in its three-drug execution protocol.  But some recent uneventful executions by other states using midazolam may serve to make this foundation for the stay weaker than it was earlier this year.  So another issue sure to come up in this argument is the capital defendants' claim, also adopted in the initial stay order, that Ohio is judicially estopped from using a three-drug execution protocol after having years ago forsworn such a plan in favor of one-drug execution plans.

In this recent post at the ACS blog, titled "Ohio’s Lethal Flip Flop: Court Should Hold State To Consistent Legal Position on How To Execute," Virginia Sloan makes the case for the judicial estoppel arguments to block Ohio's execution plans.  Here are excerpts:

Outside of the legal profession, judicial estoppel, or the doctrine that prevents a party to a lawsuit from taking inconsistent positions about the same issue at different phases of the legal proceeding, is not particularly well-known. However, it speaks to the core value of integrity in the judicial system, preventing misuse of the courts and promoting equity among litigants. Non-attorneys unfamiliar with the legal doctrine of judicial estoppel need look no further than pending lethal injection litigation in Ohio to understand its crucial importance in our system.

In a remarkable series of losses and appeals, Ohio state officials are currently attempting to convince yet another federal court to allow them to use a lethal injection protocol which is in direct violation of representations state officials made eight years ago in order to prevail at an earlier phase of the ongoing litigation....

After [a] failed execution, and facing an imminent trial in July 2010 on the prisoners’ challenges to Ohio’s three-drug lethal injection method, Ohio announced in November 2009 that it would never again use the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride in executions. State officials represented they would use a one-drug, barbiturate-only method instead. The same day Ohio announced this change, it filed a motion for summary judgment in the pending litigation, asking the federal court to dismiss all challenges to the three-drug protocol because, as the State argued, the change in execution drugs meant the claims about the two painful drugs were “moot.” The State’s filing unequivocally declared “there is no possibility here that the allegedly unconstitutional conduct will reoccur.” The federal courts accepted Ohio’s argument, and its representations, with the Sixth Circuit explicitly holding that “any challenge to Ohio’s three-drug execution protocol is now moot.” With the prisoners’ constitutional claims thus mooted in this way, the State proceeded to carry out 20 executions over the next eight years, including that of Mr. Biros in December 2009.

Fast forward to October 2016: Ohio reneged on its promises. State officials announced that their “new,” three-drug protocol will again include a paralytic and potassium chloride. Unsurprisingly, the courts did not look favorably upon Ohio’s flip-flopping. In his order, following a five-day evidentiary hearing in 2017, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael R. Merz wrote that “the position the State of Ohio now takes — that it will execute [prisoners] using a paralytic agent and potassium chloride — is completely inconsistent with the position it took on appeal in Cooey (Biros) and on remand from that decision before Judge Frost. Ohio prevailed on its contrary position and is now judicially estopped from re-adopting a paralytic agent and potassium chloride as part of the Execution Protocol.”  On April 5, 2017, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed, upholding the preliminary injunction.

The State petitioned for the full court to hear the case, and in coming weeks, Ohio will try for the third time to explain why it is acceptable to render litigation moot by making one representation, and then later in that same litigation to propagate actions in contravention of that representation.

Judicial estoppel prevents parties from manipulating legal proceedings, requiring parties to maintain consistency within the course of litigation. The changing of positions based on convenience or “exigencies of the moment” is not authorized by law, and is particularly reprehensible when the issue at hand is one of life or death. Ohio apparently needs a third ruling to remind officials that what they promised the federal courts in 2009 still binds them in 2017. The law demands that the State devise an execution protocol consistent with its word.

Even without hearing the outcome of today's oral argument, I am predicting that this judicial estoppel claim does not end up carrying the day with the full en banc Sixth Circuit.  Ohio officials are claiming that they have returned to a three-drug execution protocol because of a state legal obligation to carry out lawful death sentences AND a constitutional obligation to carry out executions in the least painful way possible. If Ohio officials reasonably and accurately assert they had to return to a three-drug protocol to comply with these obligations, I doubt the full Sixth Circuit will conclude a prior litigation position must now thwart these efforts.  

June 14, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, June 12, 2017

In summary reversal, SCOTUS holds AEDPA precluded federal court from finding Virginia's geriatric release system was insufficient to comply with Graham

One may need to be a hard-core law-geek to fully appreciate all the nuance that it is in the title of this post, which aspires to be an accurate accounting of the Supreme Court's decision six-page per curiam decision this morning in Virginia v. LeBlanc, No. 16–1177 (S. Ct. June 12, 2017) (available here).  Here are excerpts from the heart of the opinion:

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit erred by failing to accord the state court’s decision the deference owed under AEDPA. Graham did not decide that a geriatric release program like Virginia’s failed to satisfy the Eighth Amendment because that question was not presented. And it was not objectively unreasonable for the state court to conclude that, because the geriatric release program employed normal parole factors, it satisfied Graham’s requirement that juveniles convicted of a nonhomicide crime have a meaningful opportunity to receive parole. The geriatric release program instructs Virginia’s Parole Board to consider factors like the “individual’s history . . . and the individual’s conduct . . . during incarceration,” as well as the prisoner’s “inter-personal relationships with staff and inmates” and “[c]hanges in attitude toward self and others.” See 841 F. 3d, at 280–281 (Niemeyer, J., dissenting) (citing Virginia Parole Board Policy Manual 2–4 (Oct. 2006)).  Consideration of these factors could allow the Parole Board to order a former juvenile offender’s conditional release in light of his or her “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Graham, 560 U.S., at 75. The state court thus did not diverge so far from Graham’s dictates as to make it “so obvious that . . . there could be no ‘fairminded disagreement’” about whether the state court’s ruling conflicts with this Court’s case law. White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 11).

“Perhaps the logical next step from” Graham would be to hold that a geriatric release program does not satisfy the Eighth Amendment, but “perhaps not.” 572 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 11). “[T]here are reasonable arguments on both sides.” Id., at ___–___ (slip op., at 11–12).  With respect to petitioners, these include the arguments discussed above. Supra, at 4. With regards to respondent, these include the contentions that the Parole Board’s substantial discretion to deny geriatric release deprives juvenile nonhomicide offenders a meaningful opportunity to seek parole and that juveniles cannot seek geriatric release until they have spent at least four decades in prison.

These arguments cannot be resolved on federal habeas review.  Because this case arises “only in th[at] narrow context,” the Court “express[es] no view on the merits of the underlying” Eighth Amendment claim. Woods, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 7) (internal quotation marks omitted).  Nor does the Court “suggest or imply that the underlying issue, if presented on direct review, would be insubstantial.” Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (per curiam) (slip op., at 7); accord, Woodall, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 5). The Court today holds only that the Virginia trial court’s ruling, resting on the Virginia Supreme Court’s earlier ruling in Angel, was not objectively unreasonable in light of this Court’s current case law.

A proper respect for AEDPA’s high bar for habeas relief avoids unnecessarily “disturb[ing] the State’s significant interest in repose for concluded litigation, den[ying] society the right to punish some admitted offenders, and intrud[ing] on state sovereignty to a degree matched by few exercises of federal judicial authority.” Harrington, supra, at 103 (internal quotation marks omitted).  The federalism interest implicated in AEDPA cases is of central relevance in this case, for the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s holding created the potential for significant discord in the Virginia sentencing process. Before today, Virginia courts were permitted to impose — and required to affirm — a sentence like respondent’s, while federal courts presented with the same fact pattern were required to grant habeas relief.  Reversing the Court of Appeals’ decision in this case — rather than waiting until a more substantial split of authority develops — spares Virginia courts from having to confront this legal quagmire.

Justice Ginsburg wrote a separate concurrence in LeBlanc to make this point:

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), as today’s per curiam recognizes, established that a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide offense must have “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release [from prison] based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id., at 75. See ante, at 2.  I join the Court’s judgment on the understanding that the Virginia Supreme Court, in Angel v. Commonwealth, 281 Va. 248, 704 S.E.2d 386 (2011), interpreted Virginia law to require the parole board to provide such a meaningful opportunity under the geriatric release program.  See id., at 275, 704 S.E.2d, at 402 (“the factors used in the normal parole consideration process apply to conditional release decisions under this statute”).  In other words, contrary to the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation of Virginia law, the parole board may not deny a juvenile offender geriatric release “for any reason whatsoever,”  841 F.3d 256, 269 (2016) (emphasis in original); instead, the board, when evaluating a juvenile offender for geriatric release, must consider the normal parole factors, including rehabilitation and maturity.  See ante, at 4.

June 12, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Notable report of Missouri parole board playing a version of "turkey bingo" during hearings with inmates

I just noticed an interesting report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about an intriguing controversy swirling around Missouri's parole board.  Here are links to two lengthy stories about the controversies and their first few paragraphs:

"Missouri parole board played word games during hearings with inmates"

The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole allegedly toyed with prisoners during hearings by trying to get them to say a chosen word or song title of the day, such as “platypus” and “Hound Dog.”

Don Ruzicka, a member of the seven-member board, along with an unnamed government employee were accused of keeping score during the hearings, according to a Department of Corrections inspector general report completed on Nov. 1, 2016. Each time one of them used a predetermined keyword while interviewing an offender they earned a point. Two points were granted if the offender repeated the word. Occasionally, the duo spiced the game up by wearing matching clothing, like the time they dressed in black shirts, ties, pants and shoes.

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis recently obtained the state report and released it Thursday after a news conference, asserting that public servants “played games with people’s lives and liberty.”

"Officials insist Missouri parole board takes job seriously despite games played during hearings"

The day after a human rights law firm called on Republican Gov. Eric Greitens to remove former state Rep. Don Ruzicka from the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole for toying with inmates during hearings, two top prison officials stood by the panel on Friday.

A previously undisclosed state investigation found that Ruzicka and an unidentified Department of Corrections employee entertained themselves at some parole hearings by trying to get inmates to say words and song titles such as “platypus” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.” They even kept score.

“We have very credible members who take their job seriously,” insisted Parole Board Chairman Kenneth C. Jones, who is also a former Republican state representative as well as a former sheriff. “There is no joking around. It’s a very serious job.”

June 12, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Spotlighting the continued challenges for juve lifers like Henry Montgomery even after SCOTUS victories in Miller and Montgomery

Mother Jones has this notable new article about Henry Montgomery and other juveniles who are still fighting to get relief after seemingly helpful recent Supreme Court Eighth Amendment rulings. The full headline of this piece is "The Supreme Court Said His Prison Sentence Was Unconstitutional. He’s Still Behind Bars. Despite a ruling in their favor, Henry Montgomery and other juvenile lifers are no closer to getting out."  Here are excerpts:

But although the Supreme Court often appears all-powerful, its clout is more limited than it seems. Nearly 18 months after his victory, Montgomery is still sitting in Angola, and there’s no guarantee that he — or many of the roughly 1,000 others serving similar sentences across the country — will ever get out....

Montgomery’s saga began in November 1963 in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, during a turbulent time of racial tensions, Ku Klux Klan activity, and cross-burnings. Montgomery, who is African American, was in 10th grade and playing hooky when he encountered the local sheriff, Charles Hurt, who was white. In a panic at being caught out of school, Montgomery allegedly shot and killed Hurt with his grandfather’s gun, which he had stolen....

[If sentenced today], Montgomery would be allowed to present evidence of mitigating circumstances, and his lawyers could argue that his youth and mental disability — he had an IQ of around 70 — should be grounds for a reduced sentence. Instead, a state appellate court upheld his mandatory life sentence, and that was the end of his contact with a lawyer for decades to come....

In 2012, the US Supreme Court offered juvenile lifers such as Montgomery a glimmer of hope. In Miller v. Alabama, a case of two men who’d been sentenced to mandatory life without parole for crimes they committed at the age of 14, the court ruled 5-4 that such sentences were unconstitutional. Mandatory life without parole violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the court said, because such sentences failed to recognize that adults differ from children, who have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.” The court held that life-without-parole sentences should be used only for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”

The decision set off a flurry of litigation by inmates incarcerated as children who argued that the Miller decision should be applied retroactively. Montgomery filed a petition to have his sentence overturned without the help of a lawyer, but the Baton Rouge public defender’s office eventually took up his case. The local district attorney fought him every step of the way, and he lost in all the state appeals courts. But in 2015, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.

In January 2016, the court ruled in Montgomery’s favor, with Kennedy writing that the decision, which gave juvenile lifers a shot at parole, “would afford someone like Montgomery, who submits that he has evolved from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community, the opportunity to demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

But the decision was only the beginning of Montgomery’s fight.  The Supreme Court decision gave states a lot of leeway in how they handle cases like Montgomery’s and punted the details to lower-court judges and state legislators.  In Louisiana, a judge could reduce Montgomery’s sentence to life with parole, but that would leave his fate to Louisiana’s notoriously stringent parole board, which could deny him release.  The Supreme Court also left room for judges to simply resentence eligible inmates to life without parole by declaring them irreparably corrupt. And that’s exactly what the Baton Rouge district attorney pushed for in Montgomery’s case....

Montgomery’s case has languished in part because the state didn’t know quite how to handle Louisiana’s 300 juvenile lifers who’d won the right to resentencing.  Should an inmate have a full-blown sentencing hearing that would resemble those used in capital cases?  And who should decide the outcome, a jury or a judge?  The courts put Montgomery’s case on hold while the state Legislature considered a bill that would automatically grant juvenile lifers a shot at parole after they’d served 30 years in prison.  But the bill died last summer, and although it’s been taken up again this year, the courts have decided to move forward without any new legislation.  Some juvenile lifers have been able to win plea bargains that freed them, but they aren’t the majority.

Working against Montgomery is the fact that the adult children and grandchildren of his victim have been involved in the process and are opposed to his release....

Montgomery is one of many juvenile lifers whose sentences remain in limbo after the Supreme Court decision. Michigan, for example, has about 350 juvenile lifers behind bars. Since the Supreme Court decision in Montgomery, the state has begun resentencing them.  [Juvenile Law Center's Marsha] Levick says that in about 85 percent of those cases, prosecutors are again seeking life without parole.  In one jurisdiction, the local prosecutor is the same former judge who sentenced many of the inmates to life in the first place. She has requested new life sentences for 44 of 49 inmates serving life without parole for murders they committed before the age of 18....

Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, visited Montgomery in Angola earlier this year and says that because of the resistance of states like Louisiana and Michigan to implementing the Montgomery decision, the high court really “needs to take another step to bar life without parole [for juveniles] outright.”  She notes that local district attorneys are usually elected, and so the Montgomery decision “still leaves room for racially charged decisions, politically motivated decisions, as opposed to what is fair.  It keeps me up at night.”

A state court judge heard Montgomery’s case last month and promised a decision by late June.

June 7, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, June 05, 2017

Gearing up for big state court argument on the state and fate of California's death penalty

The San Francisco Chronicle has this new article about the new issues the California Supreme Court is facing concerning the state's old death penalty problems. The piece is headlined "State high court ruling on death penalty could restart executions<" and here are excerpts:

The California Supreme Court hears many high-stakes cases on issues such as individual rights, taxes, and the lawmaking powers of the state and its voters. But it has seldom confronted a case with such potentially dramatic consequences as Tuesday’s hearing on the Proposition 66 death-penalty initiative.

If the court — traditionally deferential to the will of the voters — upholds the central provisions of Prop. 66, it will open the door to the resumption of executions in a state that last put a prisoner to death in January 2006. Nearly 750 condemned inmates inhabit the nation’s largest Death Row, and about 20 have run out of appeals to their conviction and sentence.

Prop. 66 also seeks to speed up future executions, in part by requiring the state’s high court to decide all death-penalty appeals within five years of sentencing — more than twice its current pace. If the court upholds that requirement, one of the most hotly contested in the case, it may have to reconfigure itself as a tribunal that gives priority to capital cases over all other types of criminal and civil law disputes in the nation’s most populous state.

California has long been what one expert calls a "symbolic death penalty state," one of 12 that has capital punishment on the books but has not executed anyone in more than a decade. Prodded by voters and lawsuits, the nation's most populous state may now roll back toward allowing executions, though observers are split on how quickly they will resume, if at all.

The justices could reject the deadlines while upholding other Prop. 66 provisions aimed at shortening the death-penalty process, such as limiting prisoners’ appeals and requiring more lawyers to accept capital cases. But opponents say the proposed timetables for court action are the heart of an initiative that seeks to hamstring judicial authority over state law.

Neither lawmakers nor voters can “force the courts to prioritize a certain type of case at the expense of all other types of cases,” said Christina Von der Ahe Rayburn, a lawyer in the suit to overturn Prop. 66. The requirement to move death cases to the front of the line, she said, would “impair the court’s inherent function of giving fair and equal treatment to (all) litigants.”

Not so, said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and an author of Prop. 66. He said the measure would actually relieve the state Supreme Court of some of its current death-penalty workload by transferring some hearings to trial courts. It sets a five-year deadline that he says the court could meet if it eliminated needless delays. “If our side wins, we can get back to having a death penalty that actually works and really see some executions being carried out,” probably before the end of this year, said Scheidegger, who will argue in defense of the measure along with Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office at the hearing in Los Angeles.

Rayburn said an unrelated federal court case would probably delay any executions in California by at least six months, even if Prop. 66 were upheld. If the court overturns most or all of the initiative, executions will remain on hold for a year or longer as challenges to proposed new lethal-injection procedures work their way through state and federal courts....

Prop. 66 passed with 51 percent of the vote on the same November ballot in which a rival measure to repeal the death penalty in California was rejected by about seven percentage points, nearly twice the margin of defeat for a similar measure in 2012. While the votes were close, the message seemed clear: Californians want the death-penalty law enforced.  But the far-reaching provisions of Prop. 66, which received little attention during the campaign, have evidently raised concerns among the justices, who put the measure on hold while they consider a lawsuit seeking to overturn it....

Another provision of the measure seeks to expand the pool of defense lawyers by requiring attorneys to take capital cases if they already accept court appointments to represent defendants in other criminal cases.  Supporters say the change would ease the shortage of available lawyers, one of the chief reasons appeals take so long.  Opponents say it would put condemned inmates’ fates in the hands of unqualified lawyers and prompt many lawyers to refuse future assignments.

Prop. 66 would also speed up the state’s switch from three-drug executions, in use from 1996 to 2006, to lethal injections of a single barbiturate. Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration proposed procedures for one-drug executions last year in settlement of a lawsuit by relatives of murder victims.  Prison officials are still reviewing those procedures under a long-standing law that requires them to consider public comments.  The commenters have included organizations that say the proposed drugs are untested in executions and the procedures are unreliable....

Two of the court’s seven justices, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Ming Chin, have removed themselves from the case because they are members of the state’s Judicial Council....  Their replacements are two randomly selected appeals court justices, Andrea Hoch of the Sacramento court, an appointee of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Raymond Ikola, appointed to the court in Santa Ana by Gov. Gray Davis.

June 5, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Supreme Court unanimously limits reach of federal drug-offense forfeiture statute

The US Supreme Court this morning handed down a unanimous opinion in Honeycutt v. United States, No. 16-142 (S. Ct. June 5, 2017) (available here), a case concerning the reach of the federal criminal forfeiture statute. The opinion for the Court was authored by Justice Sotomayor, and it starts and ends this way:

A federal statute — 21 U.S.C. § 853 — mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain drug crimes.  This case concerns how § 853 operates when two or more defendants act as part of a conspiracy. Specifically, the issue is whether, under § 853, a defendant may be held jointly and severally liable for property that his co-conspirator derived from the crime but that the defendant himself did not acquire. The Court holds that such liability is inconsistent with the statute’s text and structure....

Forfeiture pursuant to § 853(a)(1) is limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of the crime.  In this case, the Government has conceded that Terry Honeycutt had no ownership interest in his brother’s store and did not personally benefit from the Polar Pure sales.  App. to Pet. for Cert. 60a.  The District Court agreed. Id., at 40a.  Because Honeycutt never obtained tainted property as a result of the crime, § 853 does not require any forfeiture.

The opinion's first footnote indicates that a majority of circuit courts embraced a broader view of the federal forfeiture statute, which in turns further reinforces my long-standing view that SCOTUS these days is generally more pro-defendant on a wide range of sentencing issues than most lower federal courts.

June 5, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 02, 2017

"From Grace to Grids: Rethinking Due Process Protection for Parole"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Kimberly Thomas and Paul Reingold. Here is the abstract:

Current due process law gives little protection to prisoners at the point of parole, even though the parole decision, like sentencing, determines whether or not a person will serve more time or will go free.  The doctrine regarding parole, which developed mostly in the late 1970s, was based on a judicial understanding of parole as an experimental, subjective, and largely standardless art — rooted in assessing the individual “character” of the potential parolee.

In this Article we examine the foundations of the doctrine, and conclude that the due process inquiry at the point of parole should take into account the stark changes in sentencing and parole practice over the years.  Since the development of the parole due process doctrine in the 1970s, two seismic shifts have occurred.  First, the constitutional protections provided at the initial sentencing have vastly increased.  Second, the parole process itself has been transformed by the move to evidence-based parole guidelines and the use of actuarial risk-assessment instruments as the norm in parole decision-making.

In this Article we document the changes in this under-scrutinized area and assert that the liberty interest in parole should more closely match the present-day legal account of the liberty interest that courts afford defendants at sentencing. 

June 2, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Second Circuit affirms convictions and LWOP sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht

The Second Circuit today released a 139-page panel opinion in US v. Ulbricht, No. 15-1815 (2d Cir. May 31, 2017) (available here), which starts this way:

Defendant Ross William Ulbricht appeals from a judgment of conviction and sentence to life imprisonment entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Katherine B. Forrest, J.).  A jury convicted Ulbricht of drug trafficking and other crimes associated with his creation and operation of Silk Road, an online marketplace whose users primarily purchased and sold illegal goods and services.  He challenges several aspects of his conviction and sentence, arguing that (1) the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence assertedly obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment; (2) the district court committed numerous errors that deprived him of his right to a fair trial, and incorrectly denied his motion for a new trial; and (3) his life sentence is both procedurally and substantively unreasonable.  Because we identify no reversible error, we AFFIRM Ulbricht’s conviction and sentence in all respects.

The sentencing discussion covers roughly the last 25 pages of this lengthy unanimous panel opinion, and it includes a number of notable passages while covering a lot of notable ground. Here are just a few highlights of an opinion that sentencing fans and drug policy folks should read in full:

Ulbricht’s only claim of procedural error is that it was improper for the district court to consider six drug-related deaths as relevant to his sentence because there was insufficient information connecting them with drugs purchased on Silk Road.  In terms of our sentencing jurisprudence, Ulbricht claims that the district court relied on clearly erroneous facts in imposing sentence.  We are not persuaded....

[I]t was certainly appropriate for the district court to consider the risk of death from use of drugs in assessing the seriousness of the offense conduct, one of the factors that a judge must consider in imposing sentence.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A).  That appears to be the only way the judge in this case used the evidence of the drug-related deaths. Emotionally wrenching as the statements of the decedents’ parents were, we cannot and do not assume that federal judges are unable to put their sympathies for particular victims to one side and assess the evidence for its rational relationship to the sentencing decision. And here, the record makes clear that the district court did not use the evidence of the drug-related deaths to enhance Ulbricht’s sentence, either as a formal matter under the Guidelines or otherwise....

[W]hile a life sentence for selling drugs alone would give pause, we would be hard put to find such a sentence beyond the bounds of reason for drug crimes of this magnitude. But the facts of this case involve much more than simply facilitating the sale of narcotics. The district court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Ulbricht commissioned at least five murders in the course of protecting Silk Road’s anonymity, a finding that Ulbricht does not challenge in this appeal.  Ulbricht discussed those anticipated murders callously and casually in his journal and in his communications with the purported assassin Redandwhite....

Ulbricht and amici point out that life sentences are rare in the federal system, typically reserved for egregious violent crimes, thus rendering Ulbricht’s sentence substantively unreasonable.  Moreover, according to amici, life sentences are normally imposed in cases where that is the district judge’s only sentencing option.  Thus, they claim that Ulbricht’s life sentence is substantively unreasonable in the context of the federal system, where life sentences are particularly rare for those with no criminal history who are convicted of drug crimes.

We agree with Ulbricht that life sentences are extraordinary and infrequent, which is as it should be.  But the rarity of life sentences does not mean that the imposition of such a sentence in this case is substantively unreasonable under our law.  Each case must be considered on its own facts and in light of all of the circumstances of a particular offense as well as other relevant conduct, which, in this case, includes five attempted murders for hire.  As we have described, the district court carefully considered Ulbricht’s offense, his personal characteristics, and the context for his crimes, recognizing that only exceptional cases justify such a severe sentence. Although we might not have imposed the same sentence ourselves in the first instance, on the facts of this case a life sentence was “within the range of permissible decisions” that the district court could have reached. 

A few prior related posts:

May 31, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Consensus reigning (for now) as SCOTUS continues working through its criminal docket

Because the Supreme Court has already resolved all of its major sentencing cases, there is not all that much for sentencing fans to anticipate as the Justices wind down with final opinions over the final weeks of its Term.  But there are still plenty of criminal justice cases pending that may still lead to notable opinions, and two such rulings were handed down this morning.  As the title of this post highlights, what strikes me as notable about these new opinions is how the Justices were content to speak in one voice despite the potential contentiousness of the issues.  

In Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, No. 16-54 (S. Ct. May 30, 2017) (available here), Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court and it starts this way:

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 66 Stat. 163, as amended, provides that “[a]ny alien who is convicted of an aggravated felony after admission” to the United States may be removed from the country by the Attorney General. 8 U. S. C. §1227(a)(2)(A)(iii). One of the many crimes that constitutes an aggravated felony under the INA is “sexual abuse of a minor.” §1101(a)(43)(A). A conviction for sexual abuse of a minor is an aggravated felony regardless of whether it is for a “violation of Federal or State law.” §1101(a)(43). The INA does not expressly define sexual abuse of a minor.

We must decide whether a conviction under a state statute criminalizing consensual sexual intercourse between a 21-year-old and a 17-year-old qualifies as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA.  We hold that it does not.

In County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, No. 16-369 (S. Ct. May 30, 2017) (available here), Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court and it starts this way:

If law enforcement officers make a “seizure” of a person using force that is judged to be reasonable based on a consideration of the circumstances relevant to that determination, may the officers nevertheless be held liable for injuries caused by the seizure on the ground that they committed a separate Fourth Amendment violation that contributed to their need to use force?  The Ninth Circuit has adopted a “provocation rule” that imposes liability in such a situation.

We hold that the Fourth Amendment provides no basis for such a rule. A different Fourth Amendment violation cannot transform a later, reasonable use of force into an unreasonable seizure.

May 30, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

"No Indeterminate Sentencing Without Parole"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Kevin Morrow and Katherine Puzauskas. Here is the abstract:

This article looks critically at Arizona’s indeterminate sentencing system that survived after the elimination of parole in Arizona in 1993.  It begins by exploring the purpose and history of indeterminate sentencing and parole as well as its earliest constitutional challenges and eventual decline.  Next it compares two commonly confused forms of “release”: parole and executive clemency.  The article then examines the three types of defendants and the potential consequences if Arizona does not reestablish parole for its indeterminate sentences: death row defendants denied parole eligibility instructions at trial, defendants whose plea agreement includes parole and defendants sentenced to parole at trial.  Finally, the article argues that without parole, Arizona’s indeterminate sentences should be ruled unconstitutional.

May 28, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

DC sniper Lee Malvo to get resentencing thanks to Miller Eighth Amendment rule

As reported in this AP piece, a "federal judge on Friday tossed out two life sentences for one of Virginia's most notorious criminals, sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, and ordered Virginia courts to hold new sentencing hearings."  Here is why:

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk said Malvo is entitled to new sentencing hearings after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

Malvo was 17 when he was arrested in 2002 for a series of shootings that killed 10 people and wounded three over a three-week span in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, causing widespread fear throughout the region. His accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, was executed in 2009.

Malvo also was sentenced to life in prison in Maryland for the murders that occurred there. But his lawyers have made an appeal on similar grounds in that state.  A hearing is scheduled in June.

Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Morrogh, who helped prosecute Malvo in 2003, said the Virginia attorney general can appeal Jackson's ruling.  If not, Morrogh said he would pursue another life sentence, saying he believes Malvo meets the criteria for a harsh sentence....

Michael Kelly, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, said Friday evening that the office is "reviewing the decision and will do everything possible, including a possible appeal, to make sure this convicted mass murderer serves the life sentences that were originally imposed."  He also noted that the convictions themselves stand and emphasized that, even if Malvo gets a new sentencing hearing, he could still be resentenced to a life term....

Jackson, in his ruling, wrote that Malvo was entitled to a new sentencing hearing because the Supreme Court's ruling grants new rights to juveniles that Malvo didn't know he had when he agreed to the plea bargain.

The full 25-page opinion resolving Malvo's habeas petition is available at this link.

May 28, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Alabama finally carries out death sentence for Thomas Arthur

As reported here by CNN, "Alabama executed death row inmate Tommy Arthur early Friday after a lengthy court battle that included multiple lethal injection delays." Here is more:

Arthur, 75, was convicted in the 1982 murder-for-hire of romantic rival Troy Wicker. The inmate, who was nicknamed the "Houdini" of death row because he'd had seven prior execution dates postponed, died by lethal injection at the Holman Correctional Facility at Atmore.

The Supreme Court issued a temporary stay Thursday, then lifted it later that night, leading to his execution.

"No governor covets the responsibility of weighing the merits of life or death; but it is a burden I accept as part of my pledge to uphold the laws of this state," Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement. "Three times Tommy Arthur was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Each time his case was reviewed thoroughly at every level of both our state and federal courts, and the appellate process has ensured that the rights of the accused were protected."

Arthur's lawyers had filed motions arguing that Alabama's method of execution was cruel and unusual, and that the attorneys should have access to a cellphone while witnessing the execution. Before the Supreme Court decision, stay requests had been rejected by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the governor....

Arthur was convicted of killing Wicker of Muscle Shoals by shooting him in the right eye on February 1, 1982, according to court documents. He was a work release prisoner at that time. He had been convicted of killing his sister-in-law in 1977, also by shooting her in the right eye.

May 26, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Capital Punishment and the Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this commentary/book review authored by Jonathan Mitchell and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In Courting Death, Professors Carol Steiker and Jordan Steiker present a thoughtful and trenchant critique of the Supreme Court’s capital-punishment jurisprudence.  They present data and anecdotes showing that capital punishment today is no less “arbitrary” than it was before the Supreme Court started regulating capital punishment in 1972 — leaving us with a regime that imposes costly, arcane, and highly technical rules on capital-punishment jurisdictions without any payoff in reducing arbitrary decisionmaking.  The Steikers also observe that many of these court-created doctrines suffer from vagueness and indeterminacy.  And they even suggest that the Supreme Court’s efforts to restrict the death penalty have had the paradoxical effect of strengthening and entrenching the institution of capital punishment.

Yet the pathologies with the Court’s capital-punishment doctrines go even beyond what the Steikers have identified.  The Court’s “proportionality” doctrine, for example, rests on a non sequitur: That capital punishment is rarely applied to juveniles or people with mental disabilities does not indicate that a national consensus exists against any use of capital punishment in those situations.  It is also wrong for the Court to infer “evolving standards of decency” from a state’s decision to establish minimum age or IQ thresholds for the death penalty.  Governments often choose to legislate by rule for reasons that have nothing to do with standards of decency.  Finally, the Court’s “proportionality” doctrine creates perverse incentives for prosecutors and elected officials, because it threatens to eliminate capital punishment across the board — or at least as applied to specified categories of offenders — unless the government produces enough executions to defeat a claim that a death sentence is no longer consistent with “evolving standards of decency.”  The Steikers are right to criticize the Court’s efforts to regulate capital punishment, but the problems go beyond what they identify in their thorough and comprehensive book.

May 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

After nearly 35 years, is Alabama finally going to carry out death sentence in case showcasing capital punishment's myriad difficulties?

As detailed in this New York Times piece, headlined "Alabama Inmate Hopes to Dodge Death for an Eighth Time," an execution scheduled for tomorrow in Alabama is notable for many reasons. Here is the Times accounting of some of these reasons:

Tommy Arthur, who was first sentenced to death in 1983, has long imagined what could be his end: time in a so-called death cell, a choice of a last meal, the final telephone calls and then a lethal injection.  That end could come Thursday, his eighth execution date in a case that has spanned the tenures of eight Alabama governors, starting with George Wallace.  If it does, it will conclude a legal odyssey that quietly became, for death penalty supporters and critics alike, a symbol of the troubles of the capital punishment system in the United States.

“It’s one of those cases in which nobody is happy,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group that has voiced concerns about the application of capital punishment.  “People who simply want the execution are unhappy because of the passage of time,” he said.  “People who oppose the death penalty are unhappy because they don’t want Tommy Arthur executed. People who want fairness are unhappy because, despite the length of time this case has been in the courts, the process has never been fair.”

In Alabama, where 58 people have been put to death since Mr. Arthur was sentenced for the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker, the most pressing issue these days seems to be how long it takes to carry out capital sentences.  If Mr. Arthur, 75, is executed on Thursday, his death will come one week after the Legislature gave final approval to a plan to reduce the length of appeals in capital cases....

Mr. Arthur confessed to one murder but was given a death sentence for a second that he insists he did not commit.  In regards to the latter, the state authorities contend that Mr. Wicker’s wife, Judy, hired Mr. Arthur, her lover, to carry out the killing so she could collect an insurance payout.  Ms. Wicker, who was found guilty and spent about a decade in prison before being released on parole, ultimately testified against Mr. Arthur, who was on work release from a life sentence for another killing when Mr. Wicker was murdered. (A woman who answered the phone at a number connected to Ms. Wicker hung up on a reporter.)

Near the end of a trial in the early 1990s, Mr. Arthur proclaimed his innocence but asked for a death sentence that he said would allow him greater opportunities for appeal. “I will not be executed,” Mr. Arthur said, according to a transcript of the proceedings.  “I’m totally positive of that. I wouldn’t dare ask you for it if I thought for a minute that I would be executed.”

He had already won two new trials by then. In the years that followed, Mr. Arthur’s case began to stand out to some scholars and lawyers because he so frequently staved off scheduled executions.  Mr. Arthur, whose lawyers have not raised intellectual disability or mental health claims, maintained his innocence and sought new forensic testing of evidence.  He argued his sentence was unconstitutional and that his claims of ineffective counsel were never fully considered.  He raised questions about Alabama’s execution methods, including a challenge to a lethal injection drug, midazolam.

Another prisoner once admitted to Mr. Wicker’s murder, but a judge found that Mr. Arthur and the inmate had “engaged in an attempt to defraud” the court with a false confession.  A defense lawyer for Mr. Arthur, Suhana S. Han, said that litigation had still not led to a full airing of the facts and rulings on the merits of Mr. Arthur’s claims of innocence.  Instead, Mr. Arthur’s supporters see a government increasingly desperate to put a man to death....

State officials regard Mr. Arthur as someone who will do anything to avoid his death sentence.  “I think there’s just an attitude by the other side to basically file anything that they can whether it has any merit or not,” said Clay Crenshaw, chief deputy attorney general and a former leader of his office’s capital litigation division. “I think he and his lawyers have successfully manipulated the system.”...

Alabama has moved to limit the risk of protracted cases in the future, and on Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey is scheduled to sign a measure requiring capital defendants to pursue their direct and post-conviction appeals simultaneously in the state’s courts. Under existing law, defendants have been allowed to bring a new appeal after an earlier effort failed.

The Alabama attorney general, Steven T. Marshall, said the proposed changes, similar to provisions already in force in at least four other states, would benefit people affected by capital crimes without trampling on constitutional rights.  “This is victim-driven for us,” Mr. Marshall said.  “We’ve heard the stories. We’ve seen the anguish. Victims do not sense, in a capital setting, that their voices are heard fully.  This is an opportunity for us as a state to be able to say that we’re going to allow defendants to have their fair opportunity to be heard in court for their claims to be evaluated, but we’re going to do it in a timely way.”

But Mr. Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, who noted that 60 percent of death row exonerations since 2012 involved cases at least 20 years old, suggested that quickening the pace to the death chamber would very likely lead to more executions of innocent people.  In 2015, Alabama released an innocent man, Anthony Ray Hinton, after he spent almost 30 years on death row; the state had spent years resisting demands that investigators conduct new tests on an alleged murder weapon.  “This is not about having more efficient judicial review,” Mr. Dunham said. “This is about expediting executions at the expense of fairness and accuracy.”

The Arthur case only lurked in the background of the legislative debate, but Mr. Marshall, a local prosecutor until February, acknowledged that Mr. Arthur’s history had long attracted attention.  “It’s the example of how the system has failed victims, and how he’s manipulated, through various filings, the court system to delay what should have occurred long ago,” Mr. Marshall said.

May 24, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Colorado Supreme Court rules Graham and Miller do not limit aggregate term-of-years sentence

Yesterday I noted in this post a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling from last week that resisted extending the Supreme Court's recent limits on LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders to aggregate lengthy sentences for multiple crimes.  Perhaps exactly as I was writing that post, the Colorado Supreme Court handed down a similar ruling in Lucero v. Colorado, No. 13SC624 (Colo. May 22, 2017) (available here). Here is a key passage from the start of the majority opinion in Lucero:

[W]e hold that neither Graham nor Miller applies to an aggregate term-of-years sentence, which is the sentence Lucero challenges. In Graham, the U.S. Supreme Court held unconstitutional a life without parole sentence imposed on a juvenile for a single nonhomicide offense. 560 U.S. at 57, 82. In Miller, the Court held that a sentence of “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes” violates the Eighth Amendment. 132 S. Ct. at 2460. Life without parole is a specific sentence, distinct from sentences to terms of years. Lucero was not sentenced to life without parole.  Rather, he received multiple term-of-years sentences for multiple convictions.  Therefore, Graham and Miller are inapplicable to, and thus do not invalidate, Lucero’s aggregate sentence.

The concurring opinion in Lucero notes that a significant number of state supreme courts and other courts have held that the Eighth Amendment rule articulated in Graham "extends to cases in which a juvenile offender receives the functional equivalent of an LWOP sentence." At some point (though I have no idea when), the U.S Supreme Court will have to clarify whether and how Graham nor Miller limit the imposition of sentences other than LWOP.

May 23, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tales of marijuana reform as sentencing reform from California after Prop 64

This recent AP article, headlined "California’s legal pot law helps reduce, erase convictions," serves as a reminder and reinforcement of my tendency to look at marijuana reform as often a kind of sentencing reform. The AP article reports on some interesting case-processing realities in the wake of new provisions in California law created by the state's 2016 marijuana legalization initiative, Prop 64. Here are some details:

Jay Schlauch’s conviction for peddling pot haunted him for nearly a quarter century. The felony prevented him from landing jobs, gave his wife doubts about tying the knot and cast a shadow over his typically sunny outlook on life.

So when an opportunity arose to reduce his record to a misdemeanor under the voter-approved law that legalized recreational marijuana last year, Schlauch wasted little time getting to court. “Why should I be lumped in with, you know, murderers and rapists and people who really deserve to get a felony?” he asked.

This lesser-known provision of Proposition 64 allows some convicts to wipe their rap sheets clean and offers hope for people with past convictions who are seeking work or loans. Past crimes can also pose a deportation threat for some convicts.

It’s hard to say how many people have benefited, but more than 2,500 requests were filed to reduce convictions or sentences, according to partial state figures reported through March. The figures do not yet include data from more than half of counties from the first quarter of the year. While the state does not tally the outcomes of those requests, prosecutors said they have not fought most petitions.

Marijuana legalization advocates, such as the Drug Policy Alliance, have held free legal clinics to help convicts get their records changed. Lawyers who specialize in pot defense have noted a steady flow of interest from new and former clients.

Attorney Bruce Margolin said he got two to three cases a week, many of them decades old.... Since the passage of Proposition 64, he’s gotten convicts out of prison, spared others time behind bars and successfully knocked felonies down to misdemeanors.

But he’s also encountered a lot of confusion about the law that went into effect immediately in November. “They were totally unprepared,” he said of judges and prosecutors in courts he’s appeared in throughout the state. “It’s amazing. You would have thought they should have had seminars to get them up to speed so we don’t have to go through the process of arguing things that are obvious, but we’re still getting that.”

That has not been the case in San Diego, where prosecutors watched polls trending in favor of marijuana legalization and moved proactively to prevent chaos, said Rachel Solov, chief of the collaborative courts division of the district attorney’s office. They learned lessons from the 2014 passage of Proposition 47, which reduced several nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.

Prosecutors in the county researched which convicts serving time or probation were eligible for sentence reductions and notified the public defender’s office so they could quickly get into court. Many were freed immediately, Solov said. “Whether we agree with the law or not, our job is to enforce it,” Solov said. “It’s the right thing to do. If someone’s in custody and they shouldn’t be in custody anymore, we have an obligation to address that.”

San Diego County led the state with the most number of petitions reported in the first two months after the law was passed. It has reduced sentences or convictions in nearly 400 cases, Solov said.

In Mendocino County, where pot farming is big business and violent crimes are often tied to the crop, District Attorney C. David Eyster said he fights any case not eligible for a reduction, such as applicants with a major felony in their past, a sex offense or two previous convictions for the same crime.

May 23, 2017 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Minnesota Supreme Court upholds consecutive sentences adding up to 90 years before parole eligibility for juve killer of three

Via this new commentary criticizing the opinion, I just learned of this notable ruling handed down last week by the Minnesota Supreme Court concerning the application of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment rulings in Miller and Montgomery. The commentary provides a helpful summary of the ruling and the concerns it might engender for those eager for Miller to have a broad reach:

In 2010, at the age of 16, Mahdi Hassan Ali committed a terrible crime in Minneapolis.  During the course of a store robbery, Ali shot and killed three people.  He was tried as an adult, and a jury found him guilty of two counts of felony murder and one count of first-degree murder.  On the felony murder convictions, the Hennepin County District Court sentenced Ali to two consecutive life sentences with the possibility of release on each after 30 years; on the first-degree murder conviction, Ali was sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of release....

In light of Miller [decided in 2012], the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned Ali’s sentence of mandatory life imprisonment and remanded the case back to the Hennepin County District Court for a new sentence.  On Jan. 6, 2016, Ali was sentenced to three consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release on each after 30 years. The sentences render Ali ineligible for release until he is 106 years old.

Shortly after the district court’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a new opinion in Montgomery vs. Louisiana, which offered fresh insight into the Miller ruling. Montgomery explained that the court intended Miller to bar all sentences of life without parole, not just mandatory ones, for any but the rarest of juvenile offenders who were permanently incorrigible and unable ever to be reformed....

Notwithstanding these decisions, the Minnesota Supreme Court filed an opinion last week upholding Ali’s sentences of three consecutive life terms.  In an opinion authored by the newly elected Justice Natalie Hudson, the Minnesota court decided that Miller and Montgomery apply only to single sentences of life without parole, refusing to extend the principles articulated in Miller and Montgomery to consecutive sentences that have the same effect.

Rather than requiring a special hearing to determine Ali’s prospects for reform, as Montgomery requires for sentences of life imprisonment without parole, the court decided that consecutive life sentences require no such hearing, even when they will likely result in a juvenile offender’s being imprisoned until death.

Last week’s opinion from the Minnesota Supreme Court will offer state prosecutors a new tool when seeking to imprison children for the duration of their natural lives.  For juvenile offenders convicted of serious offenses, prosecutors will seek lengthy consecutive sentences rather than seeking sentences of life imprisonment without parole.  Under the opinion, this tack will obviate the need for a hearing to determine whether the juvenile is amenable to reform, regardless of the length of the child’s sentence.

Like the author of this commentary, I am troubled whenever it seems courts are embracing formal rather than functional considerations to limit the reach of the Eighth Amendment juvenile sentencing proportionality rules set forth in Graham and Miller and Montgomery.  Still, for reasons the majority opinion in this Ali case stresses, I can understand why many courts have in various settings given constitutional significance in Eighth Amendment analysis to the fact that a defendant has been sentenced to an extreme term for multiple serious crimes rather than just one. Notably, the US Supreme Court has never formally addressed just how multiple-offense, consecutive sentencing should be analyzed under the Eighth Amendment, and this Minnesota case serves to highlight how this is one of a number of Graham and Miller and Montgomery application issues challenging lower courts nationwide.

May 22, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (20)

California struggles over whether all sex offenders can be excluded from Prop 57 parole reforms aimed at non-violent offenders

This new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Debate over sex offenders moves to court as California undertakes prison parole overhaul," provides an updated on the legal and policy issues surrounding sex offenders in the wake of a California ballot initiative intended to help non-violent offenders get an earlier chance for parole. Here are excerpts:

Los Angeles-based nonprofit is claiming California prison officials have undermined last fall’s ballot measure to overhaul the state’s parole process by excluding sex offenders from consideration for early release. The Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws, which advocates for the rights of those convicted of sex crimes and their families, says the exemption — written into newly released guidelines to implement Proposition 57 — “impermissibly restricts and impairs the scope” of the initiative.

Those regulations were released in March and won initial approval from state regulators a month later. But the original ballot measure did not exclude inmates convicted of sex crimes from the chance of getting an earlier hearing before the state parole board.

The group filed the lawsuit in late April against the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and its director, Scott Kernan. It argues the new rules are unconstitutional and it asks a judge to order corrections officials to withdraw and repeal them, according to the complaint filed in Sacramento County.

“We want the benefits of Proposition 57 to be provided to people who have been convicted of ‘non-violent’ sex offenses,” said attorney Janice Bellucci, who is representing the alliance and an inmate who brought the case forward. “It is a basic rule of law that regulations cannot be broader than the law that they are implementing.”...

Debate over the treatment of sex offenders under Proposition 57 has simmered since last fall’s campaign season. But at that point, the outcry came from law enforcement officials and prosecutors who argued they did not want to see the ballot measure’s benefits extended to rapists and child molesters.

The sweeping initiative, approved by 65% of voters, gave new power to the State Board of Parole Hearings to grant early release to prisoners whose primary sentences are for crimes not designated as “violent” under California law. It also provided new ways for all inmates to earn time credits toward their sentences for good behavior and for enrolling in certain career, rehabilitation and education programs.

Opponents of Proposition 57 warned that the list of crimes under the violent felony penal code was short and porous, inspiring efforts in the Legislature this session to expand the definition of what constitutes a violent crime under state law. In his January budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown attempted to address those concerns, directing the state corrections department to exclude all sex offenders from early parole consideration. The department’s new parole guidelines are expected to receive final approval in the fall after a public comment period. Changes to how inmates can earn credits, which can help reduce their sentences, are already underway, while the new parole eligibility requirements won’t take effect until July.

But the advocacy group that filed the lawsuit wants the state agency to revise its rules. It contends that there was plenty of public debate over sex offenders during the Proposition 57 campaign — and that even then, voters passed the measure.... The lawsuit alleges the new exclusion applies to a whole class of nonviolent offenders, including people charged with crimes where there was no sexual contact with a victim.

As of Dec. 31, the number of inmates in California prisons who would have to register as sex offenders upon release stood at 22,455, less than 20% of the population housed at state prisons. Nearly 18,000 were designated as “violent” offenders, while more than 4,521 were considered “nonviolent,” according to state corrections officials.

Bellucci said those cases could include a diverse group of offenders. In theory, she said, the new regulations could unfairly penalize an 18-year-old convicted of public indecency for streaking in high school, or a 16-year-old sentenced for child pornography after distributing nude photos of herself. “Anybody who has been convicted of a violent offense, like rape, Prop. 57 doesn’t apply to them,” Bellucci said. “We are talking about nonviolent offenses, which includes these non-contact offenses.”

I would be shocked to learn that California has any teenage streakers or sexters imprisoned for lengthy periods now hoping to get early parole. I suspect the more realistic example of the sex offender who might claim to be non-violent and seek early parole are California variations on offenders like Jared Fogle or Anthony Weiner, i.e., older men involved with child pornography or perhaps other kinds of sexual activity with underage persons.  It will be interesting to see if the California courts allow of prohibit these kinds of offenders from being excluded from the reforms of Prop 57.

May 22, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ninth Circuit dodges federal marijuana offender's claim his imprisonment contravenes appropriations rider

As everyone involved in or following marijuana reform knows, Congress in recent years has included in its omnibus appropriations bills a rider that prevents the US Department of Justice (DOJ) from using any funds to prevent states "from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."  Yesterday, a Ninth Circuit panel considered in Davies v. Benov, No. 15-17256 (9th Cir. May 17, 2017) (available here), a notable contention concerning this rider from a federal prisoner.  Here are the basics from the opinion:

Davies owned and operated medical marijuana dispensaries in Stockton and Sacramento, California, which he contends complied with state and local medical marijuana laws. Davies, however, was charged with violating federal drug laws ... [and] entered into a plea agreement, agreeing to a five-year prison term and pleading guilty to the ten counts filed against him....

Davies filed a habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 in the Eastern District of California, contending that the BOP’s use of federal funds to incarcerate individuals, such as himself, who engaged in conduct permitted by state medical marijuana laws violates the appropriations rider.

I recall talking to some lawyers back when Congress first enacted the medical marijuana appropriations rider that, if the text were interpreted very broadly, it could arguably preclude the federal Bureau of Prisons (which is part of DOJ) from spending any of its budget on those incarcerated for state-compliant medical marijuana activities. So I am not shocked that this argument made it to the Ninth Circuit. But, as this concluding passage from Davies highlights, this argument still has not yet been addressed on the merits:

The collateral-attack waiver provision in Davies’s plea agreement bars him from this particular challenge to the BOP’s use of federal funds to incarcerate him for conduct he contends complied with California’s medical marijuana laws. Because of this waiver, we need not reach and save for another day the issue of whether the expenditure of federal funds to incarcerate individuals who fully complied with state medical marijuana laws violates the appropriations rider. Cf. McIntosh, 833 F.3d at 1177–78 (holding that the appropriations rider prohibits the Department of Justice from using appropriated funds to prosecute individuals for engaging in conduct permitted by state medical marijuana laws). “We will enforce a valid waiver even if the claims that could have been made [through a collateral attack] absent that waiver appear meritorious, because the whole point of a waiver is the relinquishment of claims regardless of their merit.” United States v. Medina-Carrasco, 815 F.3d 457, 462–63 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks, alterations, and emphasis omitted).

I would be shocked to see the Ninth Circuit or any other court ultimately interpret the DOJ appropriations rider to require the release of any federal prisoners, but the argument has enough technical textual legitimacy to surely justify its pursuit by persons federally imprisoned for state-legal medical marijuana activity. And, for various updates on state activities, I continue to try to keep up with major legal developments and other notable stories at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform as evidenced by some of these recent posts:

May 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)