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Mandatory Life Sentences For Juvenile Defendants Are Unconstitutional

Posted on Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Sentencing juvenile defendants to life without parole for first-degree murder is “cruel or unusual punishment” in violation of the state Constitution, a divided Michigan Supreme Court has ruled.

The defendant in People v Parks (Docket No. 162086) is currently 24 years old and is serving life in prison for a murder committed when he was 18 years old. He appealed his life sentence, claiming it is unconstitutional because it is cruel or unusual punishment.

The Michigan Supreme Court (MSC) agreed with the defendant in a 4-3 decision. According to the MSC majority, defendants aged 18 or younger do not have fully developed brains and, therefore, should not be held to the same sentencing standards as older criminal defendants.

“We hold that mandatorily subjecting 18-year-old defendants convicted of first-degree murder to a sentence of life without parole violates the principle of proportionality derived from the Michigan Constitution … and thus constitutes unconstitutionally cruel punishment,” the majority said, remanding the case to the Genesee County Circuit Court for resentencing.

The decision in Parks aligns Michigan with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v Alabama, 567 US 460 (2012). Miller held that mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles are barred by the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Justice Elizabeth M. Welch wrote the MSC majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Bridget M. McCormack, Justice Richard H. Bernstein and Justice Megan K. Cavanagh. Justice Bernstein also wrote a separate concurrence.

Justice Elizabeth T. Clement dissented. “Because I do not believe mandatory LWOP as it pertains to 18-year-old offenders is unconstitutional under either the Eighth Amendment or Const 1963, art 1, § 16, I would not do so,” she said. “Rather than playing amateur scientists, I believe that the judiciary should focus on interpreting and applying the law. Applying the relevant law here, I do not believe that the factors [from case precedent] weigh against the constitutionality of mandatory LWOP for 18-year-old offenders. As such, I believe that we should respect the Legislature’s constitutional choice of penalty rather than impose our own.”

Justice Brian K. Zahra and Justice David F. Viviano both signed onto a separate dissent. They also joined Justice Clement’s dissenting opinion “in full.”

Background

The defendant was 18 years old when his older cousin, Dequavion Harris, shot and killed the victim in a convenience store parking lot. According to a witness, the defendant gave the gun to Harris, who pulled the trigger.

The defendant was convicted by a Genesee County jury of first-degree premeditated murder, carrying a concealed pistol and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. He was sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole.

On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals consolidated the defendant’s case with Harris’s. In an unpublished opinion (Docket Nos. 346586 and 346587), the Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions and sentences. In particular, the appeals court denied the challenge to the sentences as cruel or unusual punishment under both the federal and state Constitutions.

The defendant appealed to the MSC. The justices scheduled oral arguments and ordered the parties to address whether Miller, as well as Montgomery v Louisiana, 577 US 190 (2016), should be applied. In Montgomery, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Miller applied retroactively.

Sentence ‘Lacks Proportionality’

On appeal to the MSC, the defendant asserted that his sentence is cruel or unusual punishment under both the United States Constitution and Michigan Constitution.

“Under current United States Supreme Court precedent, [the defendant’s] Eighth Amendment argument must fail,” the MSC majority said. “However, we hold that his sentence of mandatory life without parole violates the Michigan Constitution’s ban on ‘cruel or unusual’ punishment. … Specifically, his sentence lacks proportionality because it fails to take into account the mitigating characteristics of youth, specifically late-adolescent brain development.”

Miller established a “constitutional rule” requiring that trial courts consider the “unique characteristics of youth” and set forth five factors that must be considered, the majority explained. Those factors are: 1) chronological age and immaturity, impetuosity, and the failure to appreciate risks and consequences; 2) the offender’s family and home environment; 3) circumstances of the offense, including the extent of participation in the criminal conduct and the effect of familial and peer pressures; 4) the effect of the offender’s youth on the criminal justice process, such as the offender’s inability to comprehend a plea bargain; and 5) the possibility of rehabilitation.

After Miller was decided, “and in anticipation of Montgomery,” the Michigan Legislature established juvenile resentencing procedures that are “consistent” with these cases, the justices observed. “If the prosecutor seeks a sentence of life without parole, the trial court must conduct a hearing and consider the Miller factors, any other relevant criteria, and the defendant’s record while incarcerated.”

The MSC majority then turned to the Michigan Constitution, noting it “has its own punishment provision, but it is broader than the federal Eighth Amendment counterpart” and “requires that sentencing decisions be proportional.” According to the justices, when evaluating the proportionality of sentences under the cruel or unusual punishment clause, trial courts are required to consider: 1) the severity of the sentence relative to the gravity of the offense; 2) sentences imposed in the same jurisdiction for other offenses; 3) sentences imposed in other jurisdictions for the same offense; and 4) the goal of rehabilitation.

“Therefore, in addition to those protections guaranteed to every citizen of this country under the Eighth Amendment of the federal Constitution, our state Constitution has historically afforded greater bulwarks against barbaric and inhumane punishments,” the majority wrote. “It is through this heightened protective standard that we must consider the issue before us ….”

After examining the parties’ arguments and the amicus curiae briefs that were filed, the MSC majority said it was “left with the inescapable conclusion that mandatorily condemning 18-year-olds to die in prison, without consideration of the attributes of youth that 18-year-olds and juveniles share, no longer comports with the ‘evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’”

Accordingly, “we conclude that the Michigan Constitution requires that 18-year-olds convicted of first-degree murder receive the same individualized sentencing procedure under MCL 769.25 as juveniles who have committed first-degree murder, instead of being subjected to a mandatory life-without-parole sentence like other older adults,” the justices said.

In light of federal case precedent, “we find no support in the Eighth Amendment for extending Miller’s protections under the Eighth Amendment beyond the bright line originally set in Roper [v Simmons, 543 US 551 (2005)],” the majority stated. In Roper, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty is prohibited for all offenders under age 18 who are convicted of capital crimes. “But the fact that the United States Supreme Court has decided to draw the line at 17 does not preclude us from drawing a different line pursuant to the broader protections provided by the Michigan Constitution. In other words, we may draw our own line, and we do so today.”

Accordingly, “we find Miller and Montgomery persuasive to the extent they held that juveniles are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of imposing a life-without-parole sentence and … adopt that general proposition under the Michigan Constitution,” the majority said. “However, we part ways with the United States Supreme Court’s jurisprudence to the extent the Court drew the line for defining the class of defendants that are entitled to individualized sentencing to those under the age of 18.”

The Michigan Constitution “prohibits imposing sentences of mandatory life without parole for 18-year-old defendants convicted of first-degree murder, given that their neurological characteristics are identical to those of juveniles, as articulated in Miller …,” the majority emphasized.

“We hold that mandatorily subjecting 18-year-old defendants convicted of first-degree murder to a sentence of life without parole violates the principle of proportionality derived from the Michigan Constitution, … and thus constitutes unconstitutionally cruel punishment under Const 1963, art 1, §16,” the MSC majority held. “This renders [the defendant’s] automatic sentence of life without parole unconstitutional. [The defendant] and other 18-year-old defendants convicted of first-degree murder are entitled to the full protections of MCL 769.25 and our caselaw, as opposed to the automatic sentencing scheme in MCL 750.316(1). Therefore, we reverse [part of] the Court of Appeals opinion, vacate [the defendant’s] sentence for first-degree murder, and remand this case to the Genesee Circuit Court for [the defendant] to be resentenced.”

Concurrence & Dissents

Justice Bernstein concurred fully with the majority opinion but wrote separately to set forth additional reasons to support the majority’s position. He also indicated that he prefers a “shifting presumption” that considers “individual attributes,” rather than a “bright-line rule.”

“I believe that the additional process associated with a shifting presumption rather than a bright line would help to alleviate the problem associated with drawing a line that we know will be, at least in part, underinclusive,” Justice Bernstein wrote. “In sum, adopting a bright-line rule is likely to leave out some individuals who need additional protections. This effect is consequential, as this cutoff would determine whether a defendant may be mandatorily sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and without the opportunity to show that they had diminished culpability. It should be incumbent on us to find a way to ensure that those individuals who are the most vulnerable are able to access sufficient process before they are automatically sentenced to serve their lives in prison. Accordingly, I believe that a better approach to these difficult sentencing decisions would be through a shifting presumption that accounts for relevant individual attributes, rather than a bright-line rule.”

Justice Zahra dissented, joined by Justice Viviano. The justice said he would accept the prosecution’s invitation to revisit Michigan case law interpreting Const 1963, art 1, §16 – specifically whether it provides greater protection than the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and whether it contains a “proportionality guarantee.”

Justice Clement also wrote a lengthy dissent, joined by Justices Zahra and Viviano. In particular, she criticized the majority’s heavy reliance on neuroscience. “Though courts must consider scientific evidence in some limited contexts, the majority’s reliance on scientific evidence to justify its holding is extraordinary, and it signals what I believe is the overarching flaw in the majority’s analysis. That flaw is that the majority is viewing the issue at hand not only through a legal lens – which would involve the sources and methods we typically consider, such as caselaw and the rules of statutory construction (as applied to our Constitution in this case) – but the majority is also viewing the issue through a policy lens. … Unlike the Legislature, the judiciary resolves disputes between parties. That function does not easily translate to evaluating the strength of scientific claims. Despite the decades of legal experience the justices on this Court have, I do not believe we are well-suited for this foray into neuroscience. … I view the majority’s decision as replacing a constitutional penalty with a penalty that the majority believes is better policy. This not only usurps the Legislature’s role but also overrides the policy choice of the framers, whose Constitution, I believe, would permit the instant penalty.”

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