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One Court of Justice Blog

July 10, 2014

Juvenile life sentences revisited: MSC holds that a life sentence without parole for a juvenile homicide offender is not categorically barred and Miller v. Alabama does not apply retroactively

In this consolidated appeal, People v. Carp, People v. Davis, and People v. Eliason, Case Nos. 146478, 146819, and 147428, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed two follow-up questions to the United States Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama which addressed the constitutionality of life sentences without parole for juvenile homicide offenders.  Importantly for criminal practitioners, the court held the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S Ct 2455 (2012), was procedural in nature and therefore does not apply retroactively to juvenile cases in which direct appellate review became final before Miller was decided. Additionally, the court held that the Michigan and U.S. Constitutions do not categorically bar life sentences without parole for juveniles.
 
The three defendants in this case, Carp, Davis, and Eliason, were all charged and convicted of crimes as juveniles; Carp was convicted of first-degree murder, which he committed at 15 years of age, Davis was convicted of felony murder for aiding and abetting when he was 16 years of age, and Eliason was convicted of first-degree murder, which he committed at 14 years of age. All three defendants were sentenced to life without parole. Carp’s and Davis’s convictions and sentences became final for purposes of direct appellate review prior to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller, while Eliason’s appeal was pending at the time Miller was decided.  In Carp and Davis, the Michigan Court of Appeals found that the new rule in Miller was procedural and was not subject to retroactive application. In Eliason, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that Miller required a trial court to perform an individualized sentencing analysis in order to determine whether to impose a sentence of life without parole. Subsequently, the Michigan Supreme Court granted all three applications for leave to appeal.
 
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller, which held that a sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In response to this decision, the Michigan Legislature enacted 2014 PA 22, which provided a new sentencing scheme, MCL 769.25, for juvenile offenders convicted of crimes that mandated sentences of life without parole. Under MCL 769.25, if the prosecution fails to file a motion to impose a sentence of life without parole, a default sentence of not less than 25 years or more than 60 years in prison is applied. If the prosecution files a motion to impose life without parole, then the trial court must conduct a hearing and consider the rule and factors provided in Miller. Because of these developments, the Michigan Supreme Court found it necessary to determine whether the new sentencing rules applied retroactively. 
 
In its analysis on retroactivity, the court discussed the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Teague v. Lane, 489 US 288; 109 S Ct 1060; 103 L Ed 2d 334 (1989), and its decisions in People v. Sexton, 458 Mich 43; 580 NW2d 404 (1998), and People v. Maxson, 482 Mich 385; 759 NW2d 817 (2008). Teague required the Michigan Supreme Court to ask whether the rule promulgated in Miller was a new rule. If a rule is considered new, then it does not apply retroactively unless it falls under two exceptions: (1) the rule is substantive or (2) the rule is a general rule of criminal procedure. The court only found it necessary to address the first exception because of the arguments raised by Carp and Davis. Here, the court determined that Miller created a new rule that was procedural in nature and thus did not fall under the first exception. Further, the court explained that Michigan adheres to the rule that “a new rule of procedure . . . which does not affect the integrity of the fact-finding process should be given [only] prospective effect.” People v. Young, 410 Mich 363, 367; 301 NW2d 803 (1981). In this case, the court held, the new sentencing rules do not affect the integrity of the fact-finding process, nor do the tests found in Sexton and Maxson require the retroactive application of the rule found in Miller and MCL 769.25.
 
The defendants in this case further argued that the Eighth Amendment and Const 1963, art 1, section 16 categorically bar sentences of life without parole for any juvenile, regardless of whether the trial court conducts a sentencing analysis. In addressing this argument, the Michigan Supreme Court discussed the federal and state tests for proportionality and determined that the defendants did not meet their burden to show that their sentences were unconstitutional or categorically barred.  
 
In light of its findings, the court affirmed the decisions of the Michigan Court of Appeals in Carp and Davis and remanded Eliason for resentencing under MCL 769.25(1)(b)(ii), as his conviction and sentence were not yet final for purposes of appellate review.   
 
Justice Kelly, along with Justices Cavanagh and McCormack filed a dissenting opinion. The three Justices would have held that Miller applied retroactively as it created a substantive rule and Michigan state law required its retroactive application.

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