Miller v. Alabama Applies Retroactively (and Then Some?)

The Supreme Court held Monday that the rule from Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. __ (2012), applies retroactively. In Miller, the Court held that a sentencing regime that makes life without parole mandatory for a murder committed by a defendant under the age of 18 is cruel and unusual punishment. In Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. __ (2016), the Court said that rule likewise applies to defendants whose cases were final before Miller was decided on June 25, 2012.

I originally discussed Miller here, and its specific implications for North Carolina here. Jessie set out the retroactivity issue here and recapped the Montgomery briefs here. In a nutshell, before Montgomery, courts across the country were divided on the question of whether Miller announced a new, substantive rule that applies retroactively, or a procedural rule that would not apply retroactively on collateral review.

Miller did not, strictly speaking, categorically bar a sentence to life without parole for all defendants under 18. It merely required that the sentencing court have some choice of an alternative punishment (life without parole could not be mandatory), and that before choosing life without parole, the court must “follow a certain process—considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics.” Slip op. at 17. In that sense, the rule from Miller was different from other categorical (and thus substantive) punishment bans, like capital punishment for intellectually disabled defendants, Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002); capital punishment for defendants under 18, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005); and life without parole for nonhomicide crimes committed by defendants under 18, Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).

Nevertheless, the Court concluded in Montgomery that that Miller did bar a sentence of life without parole for “all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Slip op. 17. Because life without parole is disproportionate for the “vast majority” of juvenile offenders, and appropriate for only the “rarest of children,” “Miller is no less substantive than are Roper and Graham,” id. at 17–18, and it must therefore apply retroactively.

As for the permissible remedy to any prior Miller violation, the Court noted that the states have two options: (1) conduct a resentencing through a Miller-compliant procedure (that is, one that requires consideration of the defendant’s youth and gives the court a viable alternative to life without parole), or (2) allow the defendant to be considered for parole.

North Carolina already chose the first option. Just days after Miller was decided in 2012, the General Assembly enacted S.L. 2012-148, which was eventually codified in G.S. 15A-1340.19A through –1340.19D. That law set out a special sentencing procedure for defendants convicted of first-degree murder who were under 18 at the time of the offense. I walked through it here, but I’ll describe it again briefly.

If the sole basis for a youthful defendant’s first-degree murder conviction is the felony murder rule, the court must sentence the offender to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 25 yearsG.S. 15A-1340.19B(a)(1).

If a youthful defendant is convicted of first-degree murder under any theory other than felony murder, then the court must hold a hearing to determine whether the defendant will be sentenced to life without parole or life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. At the hearing, conducted by the trial judge as soon as practicable after the guilty verdict is returned, the court may consider evidence on “any matter the court deems relevant to sentencing.” G.S. 15A-1340.19B(b). The law invites the defendant to submit mitigating circumstances to the court related to the defendant’s age, immaturity, exposure to familial or peer pressure, and other potential mitigators. G.S. 15A-1340.19B(c). At the conclusion of the hearing the court (not the jury) determines whether, based on all the circumstances of the offense and the offender, the defendant should be sentenced to life imprisonment with parole instead of life imprisonment without parole.

That legislation did not resolve the retroactivity question. Its effective date said the new procedure applied to sentencing hearings held on or after it became law (on July 12, 2012), and to “any resentencing hearings required by law.” But before Montgomery, it simply wasn’t clear whether resentencing was “required by law” for defendants whose cases became final before Miller. After Montgomery, it is clear that it is.

So who needs to be resentenced? In North Carolina, Miller is an issue for young defendants sentenced to life without parole for offenses committed on or after October 1, 1994. Life sentences for offenses committed before that date were imposed under pre–Structured Sentencing law that already allows for the possibility of parole. Based on data from the Division of Adult Correction, around 90 North Carolina defendants fell in the affected class. As of last year, 79 of them remained in prison serving terms of life without parole, suggesting that some of them already obtained relief under Miller (or perhaps some other grounds). Most of the others probably need to be resentenced under the procedures set out in G.S. 15A-1340.19B and -1340.19C. (Some already have been. As of today, 21 inmates are serving sentences of life with the possibility of parole after 25 years; 15 of those received that sentence at a resentencing hearing.)

There may, however, be some argument about whether those procedures align with Miller in light of the new gloss put on it by Montgomery. It seemed after Miller that a state could provide a constitutionally adequate procedure if the trial judge considered various things about the defendant’s youth, such as the lack of maturity, the impulsivity, the vulnerability to peer pressure, and the lack of a well-formed character showing “irretrievable depravity.” Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2464. No one factor on that list seemed more important than the others.

In Montgomery, though, the Court appeared to place young defendants in two groups: “those whose crimes reflect transient immaturity” and “those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.” Slip op. at 18. With that in mind, trial courts may need to place special emphasis on the statutory factor directed at the “[l]ikelihood that the defendant would benefit from rehabilitation in confinement.” G.S. 15A-1340.19B(c)(8). If a defendant would benefit from rehabilitation, that he or she would not appear to be “irreparably corrupt.” And if he or she isn’t irreparably corrupt, Montgomery says life without parole is disproportionate. Cf. State v. Lovette, __ N.C. App. __, 758 S.E.2d 399, 408 (2014) (“Defendant’s argument takes the statement regarding ‘irreparable corruption’ out of context and seemingly elevates it to a required finding, but this is simply one of the factors a trial court may consider.”).

6 thoughts on “Miller v. Alabama Applies Retroactively (and Then Some?)”

  1. Considering the bulk of the majority opinion’s “analysis” (a generous term) was spent on jurisdiction, I just figured I’d chime in and note that there won’t be an impact on NC law in that regard because our retroactivity is coterminous with Teague. See State v. Zuniga, 336 N.C. 508, 513, 444 S.E.2d 443, 446 (1994) (adopting Teague “as the test of retroactivity for new federal constitutional rules of criminal procedure on state collateral review”).

    • This is a comment?

      Now that I see that every comment made must pass your Board of Censors before it is published, I wonder how many people’s comments you have denied publication. One reason why I am curious is that you hurl the censor’s ban at my comments quite often.

      Are you going to help make North Carolina a place of enlightenment, transparency, and openness; or a place of secrecy, suspicion, and darkness as our legislature and courts are working at so feverishly at this time.

  2. Two years later, has this ruling actually worked for people? Seems that courts are using that “incorrigible” loophole to re-sentence anybody they want back to life without parole. People who are clearly rehabilitated and deserve release. I have seen that in a number of cases. Should this ruling be revisited?

    • Obviously the ruling needs to be revisited. I was incarcerated for 8 years and working in my institutions law library each of those years. I worked endlessly once this ruling came out seeking relief on behalf of those men that it applied to. After more than a dozen denials, the men attempting to remedy their convictions in accordance with Miller lost hope. Courts ignore the Miller rule wholesale and frustrate any attempt to enforce it.


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