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A Better Partnership
August 24, 2015

COA: Jury must determine sentence for juvenile homicide offenders facing the possibility of life without parole

In People v. Skinner, No. 317892, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that where juvenile homicide offenders face the possible sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, the Sixth Amendment requires that their sentence must be determined by a jury. In doing so, the court held that MCL 769.25 violated the Sixth Amendment because it authorizes a judge to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without parole based on judicially-found facts.
 
The defendant was convicted by a jury of first-degree premeditated murder, MCL 750.316(1)(a), attempted murder, MCL 750.91, and conspiracy to commit murder, MCL 750.157a, stemming from her orchestration of a brutal stabbing attack on her parents that occurred when she was seventeen. Her father died in the attack, but her mother survived. She received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. While her appeal was pending, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, 576 U.S.__, 132 S. Cr. 2455 (2012), in which it held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. She was resentenced, again to life without parole.
 
After Miller was decided, Michigan enacted MCL 769.25, which requires a prosecutor to file a motion in order to seek life in prison without parole for minors. The court must then hold a hearing in order to consider the factors enumerated by the Supreme Court in Miller, during which it may consider additional evidence that may not have been presented at trial.
 
The Court of Appeals reasoned that the Supreme Court’s recent Sixth Amendment jurisprudence makes clear that, other than a prior conviction, any finding of fact that increases a criminal defendant’s maximum sentence must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Since MCL 769.25 authorizes a judge to increase the sentence from the default, a “term of years,” to life in prison without the possibility of parole, any facts that decision is based on must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The court held, however, that the statute remains effective to the extent that the facts upon which the sentence is based are found by a jury.
 
Judge Sawyer dissented on the grounds that the Sixth Amendment jurisprudence of the United States Supreme Court does not require that all facts relating to a sentence must be found by a jury. Instead, according to the dissent, the jury must only find those facts necessary to impose a sentence greater than the sentence authorized by the legislature for the offense of conviction. The Michigan statute, according to the dissent, does not entitle the defendant to be sentenced to a term of years rather than life in prison without parole, because no additional facts must be found to impose such a sentence. 

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