State v. Moore, Slip OP. No. 2016-Ohio-8288—Ohio Supreme Court reverses 112-year sentence for juvenile because “functional equivalent” of life without parole sentence.

It’s important to keep an eye on how other states are handling this very important issue.  In South Carolina, in Tyrone Aiken v. Byars, 410 S.C. 534, 765 S.E.2d 572 (2014) our Supreme Court recognized what the United States Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012)—that Life without Parole sentences for juveniles (even in homicide cases) are unconstitutional without an individualized sentencing proceeding.  Such sentences will be “very rare.” Likely, SCOTUS will hold they are per se unconstitutional at some point in the near future, given the consistent trajectory of this line of cases since Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (no death penalty for kids), Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) (prohibiting LWOP for non-homicide kid offenders), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016) (retroactivity).

In this case, a divided Ohio Supreme Court held that the “functional equivalent” of a life without parole sentence is unconstitutional.  The facts of this case are highly aggravated—there’s no disputing that.  The crime involved the armed, and repeated gang rape of a 21-year old in Youngstown, Ohio.   Moore received a 112-year sentence.  He would become eligible to file a motion for judicial release after 77 years.  He received a number of sentences relating to the rape and gun charges that were “stacked”; that is, they were ordered to be served consecutively.  In this case, the Court considered whether a minimum 77-year sentence, one that exceeds the life expectancy of an offender, is constitutional when imposed on a 15-year old non-homicide offender.   The Court concluded that the sentence is unconstitutional:

The sentence imposed on Moore if functionally a life sentence.  We see no significant difference between a sentence of life imprisonment without parole and a term-of-years prison sentence that would extend beyond the defendant’s expected lifespan before the possibility of parole.  The court in Graham was not barring a terminology—“life without parole”—but rather a punishment that removes a juvenile from society without a meaningful chance to demonstrate rehabilitation and obtain release.  The state may not impose at the outset its harshest sentences on a person with twice-diminished moral culpability (Moore is “doubly diminished” because 1) non-homicide offense, and 2) juvenile status– Author’s note).

The Ohio Supreme Court also found that this holding is consistent with the holdings in a number of other states.  In People v. Caballero, 55 Cal. 4th 262 (2012), the California Supreme Court held that “sentencing a juvenile offender for a non-homicide offense to a term of years with a parole eligibility date that falls outside the juvenile offender’s natural life expectancy constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.” In Henry v. State, 175 So. 3d 675 (Fla. 2015) the Florida Supreme Court declared a defendant sentenced to an aggregate term of 90 years violated Graham.  In State ex rel. Morgan v. State, __So.3d__, 2016 WL6125428 (La.2016), the Supreme Court of Louisiana found a 99-year sentence violated Graham.  In State v. Ragland, 836 N.W.2d 107 (Iowa 2013) and State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41 (Iowa 2013), the Iowa Supreme Court held that the constitutional infirmities of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles could not be overcome simply by imposing lengthy term-of-years sentences.  Wyoming agrees that “a lengthy aggregate sentence for closely-related crimes whose practical effect is that the juvenile offender will spend his lifetime in prison triggers the Eighth Amendment protections set forth by the United States Supreme Court in MillerBear Cloud v. State, 2014 WY 113, 334 P.3d 132 (2014).  Connecticut Supreme Court held that a defendant’s 50-year sentence fell within Miller’s mandate for individualized sentencing.  Casiano v. Commr. of Corr., 317 Conn. 52, 115 A.3d 1031 (2015).  Illinois, too.  In People v. Reyes, 2016 IL 119271, 68 N.E.3d 884, the Supreme Court of Illinois held that the sentence for a defendant who was required to serve at least 89 of a 97-year prison term was the functional equivalent of a life sentence and was therefore unconstitutional under Miller.

While South Carolina has not yet addressed this precise issue, it appears that a cert petition has been filed in the South Carolina Supreme Court asking it to do so.  It certainly appears that the weight of authority is on the side of finding these extremely long sentences to violate Graham and Miller so change is most likely on our horizon.