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April 15, 2018

Interesting intricate ruling from Wyoming Supreme Court about limits on extreme aggregate sentences for juve murderers

For whatever reason, the last few months have brought a number of big notable opinions from an array of courts concerning the reach and application of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence limiting severe sentences for juvenile offenders. See examples here and here and here and here from the Third Circuit, the District of Connecticut, and the Iowa Supreme Court and the Georgia Supreme Court. 

The latest (and perhaps longest) such opinion was handed down on Friday by the Wyoming Supreme Court in Davis v. Wyoming, 2018 WY 40 (April 13, 2018) (available here).  The majority opinion in Davis covers an array of substantive and procedural issues, and it start and ending provide a flavor of its work:

In 1982, when Donald Clyde Davis was seventeen years old, he and a friend picked up a hitchhiker, robbed, and then murdered him.  Mr. Davis pled guilty to first degree murder, felony murder, and aggravated robbery. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a consecutive twenty-to-fifty-year sentence for aggravated robbery.  Following the decisions of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012), Montgomery v. Louisiana, U.S. , 136 S.Ct. 718, 193 L.Ed.2d 599 (2016), Bear Cloud v. State, 2013 WY 18, 294 P.3d 36 (Wyo. 2013) (Bear Cloud II), and the Wyoming Legislature’s amendment to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-10-301(c), after serving over thirty-three years, Mr. Davis was granted parole from his life sentence, began serving his consecutive twenty-to-fifty-year sentence, and received a new individualized sentencing hearing.  After the hearing, the district court declined to modify his original sentence.  Mr. Davis appeals and raises a number of issues regarding his sentence. We will reverse and remand with instructions to conduct a new individualized sentencing hearing....

We find that the district court abused its discretion by weighing Mr. Davis’ youth as an aggravating instead of mitigating factor; considering the nature of the crime to only a limited extent and failing to consider the participation and potential peer pressure of Mr. Davis’ codefendant; placing undue significance on dated psychological evaluations; concluding that he was not capable of rehabilitation without the benefit of expert testimony concerning Mr. Davis’s potential for rehabilitation, and by considering Mr. Davis’ disciplinary record in prison without taking into account the fact that for the majority of his incarceration he had no hope of release, and without weighing his accomplishments and personal growth while in the penitentiary.  The district court’s failure to consider Mr. Davis’ family and home environment and whether he might have been convicted of a lesser offense but for incompetencies associated with youth, without providing an explanation for omitting analysis of those factors, also constituted an abuse of discretion. Finally, the district court abused its discretion by failing to make a finding of permanent incorrigibility based upon its analysis of all the Miller factors.  When the Miller factors are not properly considered and weighed and when there is no finding of permanent incorrigibility, or when a finding of permanent incorrigibility is not supported by the Miller factors, the resulting sentence violates the Eighth Amendment.

Accordingly, we reverse.  At the time of the hearing and the district court’s decision, the parties and the district court did not have the advantage of our rulings concerning the procedure, burdens, and potentially relevant evidence for a Miller determination, contained here.  Consequently, remand for an additional sentencing hearing and resentencing is appropriate.  On remand, the sentencing court should approach the case with the understanding that, more likely than not, life without parole is a disproportionate sentence for Mr. Davis, and it should consider the Miller factors and decide whether he is the truly rare individual mentioned in Miller who is incapable of reform.

The dissent opinion in Davis likewise covers lots of group, but its start spotlights an issue that I suspect will be setting US Supreme Court attention relatively soon:

As I observed in Sam v. State, 2017 WY 98, ¶ 88, 401 P.3d 834, 862 (Wyo. 2017), reh’g denied, and Sen v. State, 2017 WY 30, ¶¶ 36-37, 390 P.3d, 769, 779 (Wyo. 2017) (Sen III), the United States Supreme Court has not prohibited consecutive sentences for juveniles who commit multiple crimes including murder.  The U.S. Supreme Court never found such sentences to be “the functional equivalent of life without parole.”  I continue to disagree with the concept of “de facto life without parole” arising from consecutive sentences for separate crimes.  In my opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court established a process to assure that a juvenile offender’s age, immaturity and potential for improvement are considered in sentencing.  Unfortunately, some courts, including this one, have focused on the result of the sentencing, rather than on the process.

I recognize some states have concluded that Miller, Graham and Montgomery point to a conclusion that lengthy consecutive sentences for juveniles, when aggregated, are the same as a single sentence of life without parole.  Other states have not done so.  I find the better logic supports those states who have not expanded the holdings in Miller, Graham and Montgomery.  Within the past year, Missouri, Colorado and Pennsylvania have all determined that Miller and Montgomery do not apply to the aggregation of consecutive term of years sentences for multiple crimes committed by a defendant under the age of 18.

April 15, 2018 at 04:38 PM | Permalink


Why do judges seem to love hooking up murderers?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 15, 2018 4:53:12 PM

And my anti-formalist instincts are in full flower here. When is a spade not a spade? When a court says that a life sentence is not a life sentence so long as one doesn't call it a life sentence.

Note: that doesn't mean that I agree with Miller etc. But if Miller is to have any weight at all it must not be reduced to a language game.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 15, 2018 5:40:53 PM

I'm not sure what "hooking up murderers" means, but giving someone who already has been in prison for about thirty-five years [and will so remain] a right to re-sentencing, which leaves open many more years, is at any rate far from lax.

I agree with Daniel that on some level we should be practical here and de facto life imprisonment should be considered to be so. The question then becomes what exactly that means. The person here is about 50. I gather (just glancing) the low end would mean he would get out when he's 70. Life expectancy rates would not necessarily mean that is life in prison (not sure the average life expectancy of someone who spent 63 years in prison) but perhaps some will think the difference is somewhat marginal.

At the very least, if we are merely talking about a more careful weighing at sentencing, that would seem appropriate. Again, the result will still likely to be long prison sentences. As an aside, some might think 35 years already is enough for a robbery/murder that by the facts in the opinion was something of a spur of the moment thing, not a planned premeditated murder.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 15, 2018 9:09:45 PM

Him getting out at 70 would be 53 years of prison.

The current life expectancy would be a few years more.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 15, 2018 9:15:27 PM

It is not the longest. See Commonwealth v. Foust (available at http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/Opinion%20%20Affirmed%20%2010343823033271529.pdf?cb=1)

Posted by: Jim | Apr 16, 2018 2:02:30 PM

Jim, if we are counting words, I think Davis is much longer. Foust is double spaced...

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 16, 2018 5:18:13 PM

"As an aside, some might think 35 years already is enough for a robbery/murder that by the facts in the opinion was something of a spur of the moment thing, not a planned premeditated murder."

the dead victim couldn't be reached for comment

Posted by: federalist | Apr 17, 2018 7:03:54 AM

The family of many dead victims can be contacted for comment & many of them would agree it was enough. Polling victims or their family, however, is not really how we determine what is suitable punishment. As is, both nationally and internationally, people who kill others, even in particularly heinous ways, tend to get out before then.

Anyway, as I said, some would think that.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 17, 2018 10:01:17 AM

As Doug noted, it is a sad reality that it will likely take SCOTUS's intervention to establish that LWOP is LWOP, even if by another name.

The dissent's emphasis on only reversing to the extent explicitly required by SCOTUS is another example of lower courts declining to independently assess what the constitution requires.

Posted by: John | Apr 18, 2018 10:55:51 AM

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