April 01, 2016

600-Month Sentence Did Not Fall Within Categorical Ban on Mandatory Life without Parole Sentences for Juvenile Offenders

Eva J. Klain

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

United States v. Jefferson, 2016 WL 945570 (8th Cir.).

Juvenile homicide defendant filed motion to vacate life sentence and sought resentencing in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama. The U.S. District Court resentenced defendant to 600 months in prison and defendant appealed. The Eight Circuit Court of Appeals found the defendant’s sentence did not fall within Miller’s categorical ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders and was not substantively unreasonable. 

Defendant Jefferson joined a gang at age 16 and began participating in violent criminal activity. At age 22, after a lengthy trial, a federal jury convicted Jefferson of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine, drug trafficking, the firebombing murder of five young children when he was 16, and the drive-by shooting of a drug debtor and an innocent bystander when he was 17. Under the then-mandatory sentencing guidelines, the district court sentenced Jefferson to life in prison, which was upheld on appeal.

The Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), later held “that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” As a result, Jefferson filed a petition urging that he be resentenced. His request was granted consistent with Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), which found that Miller articulated a substantive rule of constitutional law that retroactively applies in post-conviction proceedings. After a two-day hearing, the district court imposed a sentence of 600 months (50 years) in prison.

Jefferson first challenged his 600-month sentence as violating the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment as a “categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles,” although he acknowledged that the Supreme Court expressly declined to consider this issue in Miller. He argued that imposing a de facto life sentence on a juvenile “does not meet contemporary standards of decency.”

The Circuit Court’s review found Miller did not hold the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits imposing a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile offender. Instead, Miller found the mandatory penalty schemes at issue prevented the sentencing judge or jury from taking into account “the distinctive attributes of youth” that may diminish justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juveniles, even when they commit horrible crimes. Miller reasoned that a judge or jury must have an opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing life without the possibility of parole on juveniles.

The Circuit Court found Jefferson’s 600-month sentence did not fall within Miller’s categorical ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences. He was resentenced under now-advisory federal guidelines after a careful and thorough hearing that applied the principle that children were constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.

Alternatively, Jefferson also argued his 600–month sentence was substantively unreasonable. He argued the district court failed to properly consider evidence of his postsentencing rehabilitation and failed to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparity because the juvenile who participated with him in the fire-bombing murders received a 60–month sentence.

Jefferson showed he was amenable to rehabilitation as shown by his continuing education, work history, and positive disciplinary record while imprisoned. However, the district court properly weighed the extreme severity of his crimes, including the deaths of five young children. The court also properly considered that Jefferson had not accepted full responsibility for his actions.

Furthermore, the disparity between defendant’s 600-month sentence and the 60-month sentence for the juvenile who participated in the fire-bombing murders was not an abuse of discretion. The disparity was based on legitimate distinctions. The other juvenile was 13 years old at the time of the murders and pleaded to aggravated assault because he was too young to be tried as an adult.