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11th Circuit Denies Habeas Review for Juvenile with Federal Life Sentence

August 12, 2013

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has denied habeas review for a defendant who received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in connection with acts he committed while he was a juvenile.

Morgan unsuccessfully sought an order from the district court to consider a second or successive motion to vacate or correct his federal sentence on the grounds that the Supreme Court had since held that it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

According to the Court of Appeals, the district court is authorized to consider a second motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence only if the application makes a prima facie showing that the second motion contains a claim involving either (1) newly discovered evidence, or (2) a new rule of constitutional law that was previously unavailable, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court.

Morgan asserted that his rights under the Eighth Amendment were violated when he received a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for acts committed when he was a juvenile. In support of the claim, Morgan cited Miller v. Alabama, a 2012 United States Supreme Court case which held that a mandatory life sentence without parole for a juvenile defendant was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Morgan contended that the rule was retroactive to cases on collateral review because it addressed a specific type of sentence for an identifiable class of defendants.

The Court of Appeals agreed that the Miller decision established a new rule of constitutional law, but disagreed that it was made retroactive on collateral review. The Court reasoned that a rule is not retroactive on collateral review unless the Supreme Court has held that the rule is retroactively applicable, and it had not done so in the Miller case. The Court of Appeals distinguished previous cases where a rule had been held retroactive when it “prohibits a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense,” stating that Miller did not place a categorical bar on sentences of life imprisonment without parole for juveniles. Rather, the Supreme Court found unconstitutional a sentencing scheme that mandated a life without parole sentence for a juvenile offender. Thus, the Court of Appeals interpreted Miller to require a sentencing court to take into account how the differences between children and adults would counsel against such a sentence.

Because the Miller rule was not held to be retroactive to cases on collateral review, Morgan’s second or successive motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence did not meet the requirements set out for such claims, and was denied.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Wilson wrote that the determination of whether a rule may be retroactively applied to decisions on collateral review hinges upon whether the rule in question is procedural or substantive. New substantive rules should be applied retroactively, while new procedural rules should not. According to Judge Wilson, the Miller rule changes not only the process by which an outcome is reached, but also the range of possible outcomes, meaning that it has procedural and substantive components. As such, there is an argument that Miller announces a “quasi-substantive” rule which should be retroactively applied. In the face of uncertainty, however, Judge Wilson writes that it is wiser to exercise restraint than to “make the leap,” and so agrees that the rule should not be applied retroactively until the Supreme Court says otherwise.

Considering that there are an estimated 2600 inmates serving life without parole sentences for offenses committed when they were juveniles, the retroactivity of the Miller decision is an important issue that should certainly be addressed by the Supreme Court. Hopefully, the Court will do so promptly and provide some guidance as to whether these sentences can be reviewed.

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