Weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court says juvenile murderers cannot automatically be sent to prison for life without the chance at parole, attorneys general, soon to be joined by courts, are laying down what may be influential alternative sentences.
The Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama decision in June 2012 invalidates mandatory sentencing laws in 28 states and federal court that send juveniles convicted of murder straight to life without parole. The court said juveniles are less mature, therefore less culpable, and entitled to present mitigating factors to a sentencing judge.
In Florida, where Miller may affect more than 200 people, Attorney General Pam Bondi acknowledges that some inmates are entitled to relief, but in an early case, her office argues that a replacement sentence is already set.
Down in the Florida panhandle, a Bay County jury in 2009 found Jose Gonzalez guilty of murdering a man the year before during a robbery, when the defendant was under 18.
Gonzalez’ 2012 petition for a writ of habeas corpus in north Florida’s First District Court of Appeal asks the court to determine if his term of incarceration is legal.
In response, the state wrote to the court that the proper remedy is a reversion “to the earlier constitutional sentence for a capital felony of life with the possibility of parole after 25 years.”
In other words, Bondi’s office argues that if Florida’s sentencing law is now invalid, Gonzalez should be subject to the piece of code that predated it: 25 years then the possibility of parole.
Florida decisions will be key, along with California, says advocate Dana Isaac, the director of the Project to End Juvenile Life Without Parole at the University of San Francisco School of Law. Even though each state sets its own response to Miller, “I think it’s very difficult not to look at what other states are doing,” she said, especially a look at those two because they have large caseloads.
In the same Gonzalez filing, Florida says Miller is retroactive in the state, if not by the high court’s ruling, then by Florida law.
But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is aiming to pre-empt any retroactivity argument in his state’s 340 or so cases, by asking the Michigan’s highest court to “follow established court precedent” and declare that U.S. Supreme Court decisions on criminal justice processes are not retroactive.
"Hauling hundreds of crime victims and their families back into court to relive these horrific murders would be a terrible tragedy," said Schuette in a prepared statement.
In Iowa, 38 people are serving mandatory life without parole sentence for murders they committed when they were juveniles. When the Supreme Court invalidated such sentences, the governor commuted them to life with the chance of parole.
The Iowa Attorney General’s office is ready to defend the governor’s decision. It would not outline the advice it gave to the governor, citing attorney-client privilege, but released a statement reading: “The Governor’s office consulted with us on the legal issues. We’re prepared to defend the Governor’s action in court and any legal matters surrounding it. The state needs to do all it can within the confines of the U.S. Supreme Court decision to help protect public safety.”
There’s a risk in being among the first Miller defendants, according to Isaac. “If they rush in without precedent, they may get very long sentences,” she said.
But a Michigan court may be the first to accomplish a Miller resentencing, through no design of the defendant.
On Aug. 2 , the State of Michigan Court of Appeals, citing Miller, vacated the mandatory life without parole sentence of Quamain Leak, convicted for participating in a first degree murder at the age of 17.
Leak had filed the appeal in 2011 on grounds of ineffective trial council and other irregularities.
But Miller seems to have cut through any of that. “At oral arguments, the prosecution noted that the defendant was seventeen years old at the time he committed the offenses … Under the circumstances, the prosecutor acknowledged, and we agree, that defendant is entitled to resentencing under the principles articulated in Miller v. Alabama,” wrote the appeals court in its decision.
Now Leak is heading back to trial court for resentencing.