Dennis LeBlanc v. Randall Methena (4th Cir. November 7, 2016)“Meaningful” Chance at Parole for Juvenile LWOP’ers

An update on this opinion out of the United States Supreme Court today, June 11, 2017.  Virginia , et al. v. Dennis LeBlanc, 582 U.S.___ (2017). Today the full Court, per curiam, reversed the Fourth Circuit because it found the Fourth Circuit did not accord the Virginia trial court’s ruling, which was based on an earlier Virginia Supreme Court ruling, sufficient deference and because that ruling was not objectively unreasonable.  Essentially, the Virginia state court found that the geriatric release program did not violate Graham when it employed normal parole factors which, given those factors, could allow a Parole Board to order release in light of “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” (Graham factors).  The Court, predictably and appropriately, did not answer that issue on the merits.  It merely found that under AEDPA’s stranglehold standard of deference, it was improper for the Fourth Circuit to reverse the lower court ruling.

What a damn shame.  

Excellent opinion out of the 4th Circuit that shows that the courts are prepared enforce the United States Supreme Court’s guarantees that juveniles sentenced in the criminal justice system will have meaningful opportunities for release.  See Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012) (no LWOP for juveniles, including homicide); Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) (8th Amendment forbids LWOP for juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicide offenses); Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S, 551 (2005) (no death penalty for juveniles)

In short, the Petitioner here was convicted of LWOP as a juvenile (non-homicide offense) and he argued he should be released.  The Virginia courts argued that he had a “meaningful” opportunity at release due to Virginia’s Geriatric Release Program and denied his habeas petition.

The Court found that Graham established at least three minimum requirements for parole or early release programs for juvenile non-homicide offenders sentenced to life imprisonment.  First, the inmate must have the opportunity “to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  Second, the opportunity must be “meaningful” which means the opportunity must be “realistic” and more than a “remote possibility.”   And third, a state parole or early release program must account for the lesser culpability of juvenile offenders.  “An offender’s age is relevant to the Eighth Amendment, and criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants’ youthfulness into account at all would be flawed.”  Graham at 76.  See also Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2465-66 (2012) (explaining that Graham’s “foundational principle” is “that imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children”).

With these principles in mind, the 4th Circuit found that the lower court’s finding that the Geriatric Release program complies with Graham’s parole requirement was “contrary to, or an unreasonable application of” Graham.

This lengthy opinion details the particulars of Virginia’s program and illustrates why it does not comply with Graham.  Of interest to those in our neck of the woods, it’s enough that it shows that the 4th Circuit is willing to engage in a substantive look at a state’s parole apparatus and determine if it fulfills Graham’s guarantees.  As the Court concluded:

“…Respondents and the dissent seek refuge in Supreme Court’s statement that “[i]t is for the State, in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance” with Graham’s requirements…According to Respondents and the dissent, this single sentence effectively immunized Petitioner’s sentence—and those of all other juvenile nonhomicide offenders sentenced to life imprisonment eligible for any form of early release other than executive clemency—from collateral review.

But the Supreme Court’s proper regard for States’ independent judgment regarding how best to operate their penal systems does not, “[e]ven in the context of federal habeas, …imply abandonment or abdication of judicial review.”

Great news for juveniles who will be seeking to enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling in Graham at the parole stage, and useful guidance to those of us representing them.  Mr. LeBlanc was represented by the Equal Justice Initiate in Montgomery, Alabama, the organization that has spearheaded this very important change in the law under the leadership of Bryan Stevenson (who will be speaking at the Township Auditorium in Columbia, South Carolina on November 17, 2016)!

Also, cute, leaping kitten.