The last week of July brought a host of significant developments in Michigan criminal law. The Michigan Supreme Court issued decisions or orders in People v. Stovall, No. 162425, People v. Poole, No. 161529, People v. Parks, No. 162086, and People v. Taylor, No. 154994. In these cases, the Michigan Supreme Court again addressed the implications of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, 567 US 460 (2012). Miller held that mandatory life without parole (“LWOP”) sentences for juveniles are barred by the Eighth Amendment. Michigan trial courts have struggled applying Miller’s mitigating factors when sentencing juveniles. Among the questions in this slew of cases was the application of Miller to young adults (18- to 25-year-olds) and whether the prosecution bears the burden of proof for establishing whether a sentence of life without parole is warranted for a juvenile.
In Taylor, briefed and argued by Warner Norcross + Judd’s Conor B. Dugan, the Supreme Court addressed a LWOP sentence of Robert Taylor for a crime he committed when he was just 16 years old. The Supreme Court held oral argument to determine whether to grant the application for leave to appeal. In lieu of granting leave, the Supreme Court ruled in Mr. Taylor’s favor. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that when a prosecutor seeks to impose LWOP for a crime committed by the defendant as a juvenile, the prosecutor bears the burden to rebut, by clear and convincing evidence, the presumption that LWOP is a disproportionate sentence. Additionally, the Supreme Court remanded to the Michigan Court of Appeals to address whether a LWOP sentence for a juvenile convicted of felony murder for aiding and abetting is unconstitutional under the Michigan Constitution. Accordingly, Mr. Taylor must be resentenced and a LWOP sentence may be completely barred. Beyond Mr. Taylor, the case will affect numerous juveniles who were sentenced to LWOP.
In Parks, the Supreme Court held that subjecting 18-year-olds convicted of first-degree murder to mandatory LWOP violates the Michigan Constitution’s prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that such a mandatory sentence for an 18-year-old violated Michigan’s principle of proportionality. Thus, Mr. Parks must be resentenced consistent with the same sentencing scheme laid out in Taylor. In Poole, the Supreme Court held that the Michigan Court of Appeals had to consider whether Mr. Poole, who was sentenced to LWOP for murder as an 18-year-old, was entitled to relief based on the Parks holding.
Finally, in Stovall, the Supreme Court addressed a juvenile defendant convicted of second-degree murder and subjected to LWOP. It asked whether such a sentence was unconstitutional. It answered the question in the affirmative: a LWOP sentence for a juvenile defendant who committed second-degree murder is always cruel or unusual punishment. Therefore, Mr. Stovall’s sentence was vacated.
Together these cases signal a sea-change in Michigan criminal law and offer hope for youthful offenders who had no hope of ever leaving prison alive. The cases will certainly spur more litigation and disputes about proper sentencing, but the tea leaves suggest that the Michigan Supreme Court is going to be very dubious of strict sentences for youthful offenders.
For more information, please contact Conor Dugan or a member of the White Collar Criminal Defense Practice Group.