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September 4, 2013

Another effective review of the messy Miller aftermath

Juve miller mapThis morning's Wall Street Journal has this new article reviewing all the legal uncertainty which persists in state courts more than a year after the Supreme Court's Miller ruling declared unconstitutional mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile murderers. (Regular readers may recall similar recent AP and Stateline piecesfocused mostly on legislative responses to Miller discussed here and here.) This new WSJ piece is headlined "Courts Split Over Ruling on Juvenile Life Sentence: Confusion on 2012 Decision Creates a Legal Limbo for Inmates, Their Lawyers," and here are excerpts:

Jeffrey Ragland, sentenced to life without parole in 1986 for his involvement in the killing of a fellow teen with a tire-iron blow to the head, could soon be a free man. That outcome is the result of a ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court last month that found the sentence handed down to Mr. Ragland, now 44 years old, unconstitutional. The court concluded that a June 2012 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles should be applied retroactively, rather than only to future cases.

Other high-level courts, including the Minnesota Supreme Court and the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, have ruled otherwise, finding the Supreme Court's ruling in Miller v. Alabama shouldn't reach backward in time.  Inmates challenging their sentences in those cases had their appeals denied.

This schism over the Miller ruling has helped sow deep confusion among inmates, their lawyers, lawmakers and sentencing-policy advocates.  More than a year after the high court ruling, many of the approximately 2,100 people sentenced as juveniles to mandatory life-without-parole sentences before June 2012 are being held in a sort of legal limbo — with few answers in sight.

"The situation is an absolute mess," said Wendell Sheffield, a criminal defense lawyer in Birmingham, Ala., who represents a juvenile being held in jail on capital murder charges. "We got an opinion from the highest court in the land, but nobody knows how to implement it."... [S]o far, courts have largely divided over a highly technical question of constitutional law: whether the rule established in Justice Kagan's opinion is "substantive" in nature, and therefore should apply retroactively, or "procedural," which would only alter the method of determining a sentence going forward. 

Several Supreme Court rulings in recent years in regard to sentencing, such as the 2002 decision that banned the death penalty for the mentally disabled, were in the former category and applied to sentences already imposed. Justice Kagan's opinion didn't explicitly label the new rule as procedural or substantive....

Advocates for overhauling the juvenile-justice system hailed the Ragland ruling. "An incentive to rehabilitate should be part of most juvenile sentences," said Jody Kent, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. "So often we have no idea what a child is going to be like in 10, 20 or 30 years."

A spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican whose office had argued against Mr. Ragland's new sentence, said victims "must never be re-victimized and can never be forgotten from the process." It is a concern echoed by other victims' rights supporters, who think renewed parole hearings, with their promise of springing convicted murderers from prison, would open old wounds.

Since the Miller ruling, a handful of the 28 states with mandatory life-without-parole sentences for at least some juveniles have changed their laws.  Some, like Delaware and Texas, scrapped the option of such sentences entirely.  Others, like Arkansas and Nebraska, still allow judges to impose the sentence, but also let them consider a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

But the majority of states have yet to change their laws, leaving the status of scores of inmates and defendants up in the air.  Mr. Sheffield said his client in Alabama is "completely stuck in a holding pattern" until the legislature or the Alabama courts give some clarity. "I think the [U.S.] Supreme Court was hopeful that state legislatures would deal with this fairly quickly," he said. "But they haven't — and it's just adding to the chaos."

I suspect the US Supreme Court will eventually feel compelled to take up the issue of whether and how the Miller ruling is to apply retroactively to long ago final cases.  If (and when?) the Justice take up this matter, I think the case could end up being one of the most significant SCOTUS retroactivity decisions since Teague.

A few recent related posts:

September 4, 2013 at 10:55 AM | Permalink


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The Alabama situation is interesting. In Alabama, there are no other possible sentences for a defendant convicted of capital murder except LWOP or death. Of course, neither is available to the sentencer of a juvenile. Defense lawyers and prosecutors really can't proceed with cases until the mess is straightened out: pleas can't be negotiated until someone knows what the parameters are. Everything seems to be on hold.

Posted by: Ala JD | Sep 4, 2013 11:32:11 AM

Ala JD --

Couldn't the parties agree to a sentence of 45 years with parole eligibility after that? Another part of the agreement would be that, if such a sentence is imposed, neither side could seek any further review of it.

If the judge goes along, as most do with negotiated agreements, I think that does it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 4, 2013 2:24:53 PM

Bill, being in a state with a similar statute, I don't think our courts would hold the defendant to the waiver. They would find a sentence not authorized by statute to be jurisdictional and would grant a real, common law, writ of habeas corpus finding no legal basis for the detention. (And I do mean the original Great Writ, not the watered-down, waivable, collateral review found in many state procedures and 2254).

Until we get a legislative fix, it is almost impossible to successfully try a juvenile for murder 1st and any plea bargaining has to assume that the worst is life on murder 2nd (with parole eligibility after 25 years).

Posted by: tmm | Sep 4, 2013 5:35:47 PM

tmm --

"They would find a sentence not authorized by statute to be jurisdictional..."

Then they'd be making it up. Whether a sentence is too long or not long enough has nothing to do with the courts' jurisdiction.

One might equally say that, when a defendant agrees to a plea bargain that waives his rights to challenge the lawfulness of a search that produced the key evidence (which is a typical condition of plea bargains), and the search was plainly illegal, the defendant is being held "with no legal basis for the detention."

Too bad. If a party wants to raise an issue, that's fine, but he does it before he agrees to forfeit it, not after.

And then there is professional obligation: Once a defense lawyer concludes a deal based on his agreement to do (or forego) X, then he's going to either keep his word, or he will never get another plea deal from the Office. No sane prosecutor will negotiate with a defense counsel who reneges.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 4, 2013 6:06:16 PM

"And I do mean the original Great Writ"

My understanding is that the Great Writ is not available to finalized state court judgments. Am I wrong?

Posted by: JB | Sep 4, 2013 7:39:49 PM

Ala JD,

A LWOP sentence is available to the sentence of a juvenile murderer, it just cannot be a mandatory LWOP sentence.

Posted by: justice seeker | Sep 5, 2013 8:55:37 AM


Posted by: justice seeker | Sep 5, 2013 9:22:35 AM

JB, many state constitutions include a provision recognizing the traditional writ of habeas corpus. Federal review would not necessarily be available on the proper interpretation of state law, but state court review would be availabe on whether the sentence was permitted by state law.

Contrary to what Bill Otis thinks, I do not think any state court would have a problem finding a sentence facially invalid -- despite any agreement by the defendant to that sentence and waiving review -- if a defendant agreed to a 20 year sentence for burglary when the maximum penalty authorized by law was 10 years. Additionally, the challenge is not likely to be raised by the attorney who originally negotiated the deal but by a new attorney (or a jailhouse lawyer) who decides that the sentence was not authorized by law. Jurisdictional has become a vague term in a lot of jurisprudence (with a lot of different meanings) including, in my state, a sentence outside of the court's power (e.g. a clear double jeopardy violation).

Posted by: tmm | Sep 5, 2013 10:00:00 AM

tmm --

I always appreciate the precision and the realistic outlook in your thinking. I disagree with you in some respects here, however.

1. The first jurisdictional limitation on the judiciary is that there must be a "case or controversy." When the parties have voluntarily agreed on an outcome, that is lacking.

2. The legal error you describe (a 20 year sentence when the statutory max is 10) is different from the situation I posit. In the case you describe, the sentence is illegal under all circumstances. In the case I posit (agreed parole eligibility after 45 years), the sentence is not illegal under all circumstances. Indeed, so far as Miller states or implies, it is not illegal under ANY circumstances, because it means that the inmate will be eligible for parole while he still has a meaningful life remaining.

3. It is true that the sentence I posit is jury-rigged, in the sense that there is no statute authorizing it. But courts have jury-rigged analogous stuff before. For example, after Furman, death sentences turned into life sentences, even though the sentencing court had imposed no such thing.

Now it's true that at least life sentences were on the statute books -- but they're on the statute books now, too. A life sentence with parole eligibility after 45 years is simply a subset of a life sentence.

4. I agree that the original lawyer is unlikely to renege and that the defendant himself or a jailhouse lawyer will. This is why plea agreements (or at least the ones I knew about) always contained the signature of the defendant personally, plus an extensive and transcribed hearing about whether the defendant understood what he was doing, wanted to do it, realized that he still had certain rights, but was voluntarily giving up those rights, including the right to challenge the sentence on any grounds.

If, later on, he wanted to challenge the sentence anyway, I would just move to dismiss, attaching the signed plea agreement and the transcript. I do not recall having a single such motion denied.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 5, 2013 10:40:23 AM

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