Saturday, August 21, 2021

Miller does not preclude sentencing juvenile offender to de facto life in prison without parole, even if he is not "incorrigible."

The en banc decision in United States v. Grant, No. 3820,, -- F.4th ----2021 WL 3611764 (Aug. 16, 2021), considers whether, under Miller v. Alabama, a juvenile offender may be sentenced to de facto life without parole, even when all concede he is not incorrigible. Those practicing in this or related areas will want to give Grant a close read, but we summarize the issues here. For appellate practitioners, note the discussion of preservation and plain error related to the sentencing package doctrine—all issues seen in more ordinary cases.

Despite the multiple opinions here, the Court unanimously affirms Grant’s sentence under Miller. The majority holds that Miller guarantees only a “sentencing process” under which the sentencer has discretion to impose a lesser punishment based on the offender’s youth at the time of the offense. Since Grant received that process, the Court affirms his newly imposed 65-year sentence, even though it incarcerates him to his life expectancy. To reach this conclusion, the Court contrasts the Miller opinion with the categorical bars in Roper and Graham and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Jones v. Mississippi, which—like Miller—emphasized “discretionary sentencing procedure.” The Court observes that the sweeping language of Montgomery v. Alabama, which made Miller retroactive to cases on collateral review, did not expand Miller’s holding.

The Court notes, citing Jones, that although there is no guaranteed outcome for juvenile homicide offenders. “If a sentencer imposes de jure or de facto LWOP after finding—gratuitously—that a defendant is corrigible, the vehicle for challenging the sentence is an as-applied Eighth Amendment claim, based on disproportionality of the punishment to the crime and criminal.” Grant had not pursued such a challenge. Grant’s complaint that the sentencing judge failed adequately to explain the de facto life sentence vis-à-vis Miller was dismissed by the Court, since the sentencing judge considered Grant’s youth and related factors in mitigation. The Court emphasized that no specific script is required and that consideration may be brief.

The Court found that Grant failed to preserve a sentencing package doctrine argument to vacate and reconsider concurrent sentences (the district court had resentenced Grant only on the two RICO counts involving the homicides). Counsel missed the mark by pitching this as required by “the spirit of Miller,” instead of the sentencing package doctrine. To preserve an argument, counsel must have raised the same argument, not merely an issue that encompasses the appellate argument. On plain error review, the Court held that the law did not clearly require de novo sentencing when certain sentences (as opposed to convictions) are vacated.

Judge Hardiman (joined by Jordan, Bibas, and Porter) writes a concurrence discussing the problems with the Eighth Amendment “evolving standards of decency” test applied in Miller, which he believes displaces the text of the Bill of Rights in favor of a “nebulous test” that gives judges unbounded discretion.

Judge Greenaway (joined by Restrepo) writes a concurrence arguing that Jones is not helpful in this case because it doesn’t resolve what happens when—as happened here—a judge makes an affirmative finding that an offender is “corrigible.” He explains how Miller, Graham and Montgomery require evaluation whether an offender has a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” and what that entails. (Judge Krause joins for this part only.) He concludes the evidence presented at Grant’s sentencing established a meaningful opportunity to obtain release.

Judge Ambro (joined by Mckee) concurs in part and dissents in part. Judge Ambro believes that Jones overruled Miller and Montgomery as to the guarantee of meaningful opportunity for release. He dissents (and Restrepo joins him and McKee for this section) on the sentencing package issue. He finds the issue preserved by counsel’s statement that the sentences were “all part and parcel of one sentence” and that “it should be clear that really it is a whole knew sentencing,” which alerted the sentencing judge to the substance of the sentencing packaging doctrine argument. The sentencing judge appeared to understand the argument, as well. He finds no reason to distinguish between convictions and sentences under the doctrine. Because it is unclear whether Grant got a full resentencing, he would have remanded.

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