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January 22, 2016

COA criticizes separate panel on the constitutionality of state statute addressing juvenile homicide offenders facing the possibility of life without parole

In the consolidated case of People v. Perkins, No. 323454, People v. Williams, No. 323876, and People v. Hyatt, No. 325741, the Michigan Court of Appeals stated that it would, contrary to a separate Court of Appeals panel decision in People v. Skinner, uphold the constitutionality of MCL 769.25 when a sentencing court orders a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole, which was within the prescribed statutory maximum sentence. The Court of Appeals ultimately adhered to precedent by applying Skinner to remand for resenting, but not before it detailed at length in a unanimous decision the justification for why Skinner was wrongly decided.
 
In Skinner, which we blogged about here, the Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision 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 Skinner court reasoned that the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence makes clear that 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 a term of years to life in prison without the possibility of parole, any facts that this decision is based on must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
 
The Court of Appeals in Perkins, however, stated in no uncertain terms that Skinner’s reasoning is without jurisprudential justification. Under MCL 769.25, if a prosecutor motions for life without the possibility of parole for an enumerated crime, the trial court may order that sentence after holding a hearing to consider the Miller factors and stating its justification on the record. Thus, according to Perkins, only after the jury convicts a defendant of a crime enumerated in the statute does the court get the discretion to determine whether life without the possibility of parole is appropriate. Imposing such a sentence is not a sentence enhancement based on judicially-found facts as Skinner held—which would violate the Constitution—but is merely an exercise of judicial discretion by sentencing the defendant within the prescribed statutory sentencing range. Since imposing this maximum sentence was based solely on facts found by the jury or admitted by the defendant, it did not violate the constitutional prohibition of judicial fact finding in this context. For this reason, according to Perkins, Skinner was wrongly decided and MCL 769.25 is constitutional. The Court of Appeals ended its opinion noting that the Defendant filed an application for leave to appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court—leaving the door open for the State’s high court to resolve this issue.

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