Third Circuit Rejects De Facto Life Sentences for Most Juvenile Offenders

The United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals has just announced its decision in United States v. Grant, rejecting effective life imprisonment sentences for most juveniles as unconstitutional. Although other federal circuits had already addressed this issue, this was a case of first impression for the Third Circuit which will have dramatic consequences for juvenile offenders who are tried as adults in Pennsylvania and those who are already serving what would effectively be life sentences without parole. 

United States v. Grant

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

In March 1987, local law enforcement in Elizabeth, New Jersey became aware of an organized group of teenagers that referred to themselves as The E-Port Posse (“The Posse”). The Defendant was a member of The Posse. The Posse operated a narcotics network that sold cocaine in Elizabeth and would routinely use threats and physical violence to further its enterprise.  

An example of this is occurred in August 1989. The defendant, who was 16 years old at the time, encountered a group of rival drug dealers while delivering drugs for The Posse. The defendant spoke to one of these dealers and told him not to be in the Posse’s territory. The rival drug dealer refused to leave. In response, The defendant struck him in the head with a gun while another Posse member assaulted him. The rival drug dealer fled and the defendant and his associate shot him in the leg. The rival drug dealer survived the incident.

Later that month, the defendant encountered the rival drug dealer’s brother, who was also a drug dealer. The defendant warned the brother not to sell in Posse territory. The defendant confronted the brother in an apartment courtyard where he tried to get the brother to go into an apartment. The brother escaped, but the defendant ordered his associate to shoot the brother to prevent said escape. The associate killed the brother. 

In 1991, a superseding indictment charged the defendant with RICO offenses; Racketeering; Conspiracy to Possess with the Intent to Distribute cocaine; two counts of Possession with the Intent to Distribute cocaine; and two counts of Possession of a Weapon in Relation to a Crime of Violence or Drug Trafficking. Although the defendant was not specifically charged with murder, the attempted murder of the rival drug dealer and the actual murder of his brother were the predicate offenses for the racketeering charge.   

The defendant was tried as an adult even though he was under the age of 18 when these crimes were committed. A jury came back with a split verdict, but found the defendant guilty of RICO, racketeering, and drug and gun possession counts. The jury found that the defendant attempted to murder the rival drug dealer, and murdered his brother. At sentencing, the defendant was sentenced to the mandatory sentencing guidelines of life without parole (hereinafter “LWOP”) on the RICO counts, as well as a concurrent forty-year term of imprisonment on the drug-trafficking counts, and a five-year consecutive term of imprisonment on the gun possession count. The convictions and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal.

The defendant caught a break with the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile homicide offenders violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Consequently, the defendant received a new sentencing hearing.

At the resentencing hearing, the District Court determined that because of the defendant’s upbringing, debilitating characteristics of youth, and post-conviction record, he was not incorrigible, and thus an LWOP sentence was not appropriate. However, the District Court imposed a term of sixty years imprisonment to run concurrently with the drug charges which resulted in a new effective sentence of sixty-five years without parole. Based on this sentencing, the defendant would have been eligible for release when he reached the age of 72 years old. He appealed again. 

Adolescent Development and the Supreme Court

Over the past two decades, adolescent brain development has been an important issue in United States Supreme Court jurisprudence. This began with its decision in Roper v. Simmons which banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders. In its decision, the Roper Court utilized science and social science to reason that juveniles lack maturity, have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, and are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures. In other words, the United States Supreme Court has found that children’s brains are not as developed as those of an adult and thus they should not be held to the same moral standard when addressing criminal conduct and sentencing. 

The United States Supreme Court further expanded on its jurisprudence in the subsequent years. In Graham v. Florida, the Court held that life without parole is unconstitutional for juvenile offenders who commit crimes other than homicide. In Miller v. Alabama, the Court held that that mandatory LWOP even in homicide cases is unconstitutional. Most recently, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court held that Graham and Miller apply retroactively (in other words, if someone was sentenced to LWOP prior to the Court’s rulings in Graham and Miller, then they would be entitled to a new sentencing hearing).

It is important to note that the United States Supreme Court never held that a juvenile cannot be sentenced to LWOP for a homicide offense. However, the bar was set very high to impose such a sentence. As the Grant court stated in its opinion “[o]nly those who are permanently incorrigible may receive such a sentence.” This logic is part of the reason why the defendant in this case challenged his sentence. The trial court essentially sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole.

Third Circuit Rejects Effective Life Without Parole Sentences for Juvenile Offenders as Unconstitutional  

The defendant appealed, arguing that because he would not be eligible for parole until he was 72 years old and that his life expectancy was also 72 years, he had been sentenced to a de facto life without parole sentence. Remember, the sentencing court previously found that he was not incorrigible, and thus, under the logic of Miller, he should receive a parole hearing before he is expected to die. The Third Circuit agreed with the Defendant.

In its decision, the Third Circuit focused on the Miller ruling which held that juvenile life without parole is only for incorrigible juveniles. Further, the Court extrapolated from the previously mentioned Supreme Court decisions that de-facto life without parole cannot be reconciled with Graham and Miller’s holdings that sentencing judges most provide non-incorrigible juvenile offenders “with a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on their demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” and that LWOP has “diminished penological justification.” The Third Circuit also looked to other circuit court decisions (i.e. the 7th, 9th and 10th) which held that term-of-years sentences, in those respective cases, violated the holdings of Graham and Miller.

Ultimately, the Third Circuit established new requirements for a sentencing court before it imposes a term-of-years sentence on a non-incorrigible juvenile offender. First, the sentencing judge must conduct an individualized evidentiary hearing to determine the non-incorrigible juvenile homicide offender’s life expectancy before sentencing him to a term-of-years sentence. Next, the sentencing court must “shape a sentence that properly accounts for a meaningful opportunity to be released.” The Third Circuit concluded that this is before the age of retirement. The Court chose retirement because “society accepts the age of retirement as a transitional life stage where an individual permanently leaves the work force after having contributed to society over the course of his or her working life.” The Court said that juvenile offenders should have an opportunity to “reconcile with society and achieve fulfillment outside prison walls.” Nonetheless, the sentencing court must also consider the § 3553(a) factors (i.e. the seriousness of the offense, public safety, deterrence, etc.) too, and though a non-incorrigible juvenile offender should be presumptively sentenced below the age of retirement, there may be legitimate reasons why a juvenile offender should not be released before the age of retirement.

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Criminal Defense Attorneys Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Criminal Defense Attorneys Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

If you are facing criminal charges or deciding whether to appeal a conviction or sentencing , we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients in jurisdictions throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We can also provide advice on the merits of pursuing an appeal or post-conviction relief act petition. We offer a free 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to each potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.