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United States v. Johnson

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division

June 28, 2016

United States of America,
Gary Christopher Johnson, Defendant



         Judge Norman K. Moon This matter is before the court upon Defendant's petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment for charges related to a theft and murder he committed when he was 16 years old. He seeks relief under Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), which held (as explained more accurately below) that mandatory life sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment, and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), which held that Miller involved a substantive right retroactively applicable on collateral review. After review of the record and the parties' arguments, the Court concludes Miller and Montgomery require Defendant's petition be granted so that he can be resentenced in accordance with the Eighth Amendment.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         In 2006, Defendant, as a juvenile, stole drugs, drug money, a gun, and a car from his cousin's house, where he had been living. As he and an accomplice absconded as part of a plan to travel to New York from Virginia, the cousin's live-in girlfriend pursued them in a separate car. Defendant stopped his stolen vehicle and, as the girlfriend approached, shot and killed her.

         In 2008, the Government obtained a four count indictment for (1) possession of a stolen gun, (2) conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute it, (3) distribution of cocaine, and (4) carrying and using a firearm in relation to a drug trafficking offense, resulting in the death of another. (Dkt. 1). Defendant was tried by jury and found guilty on all counts. (Dkt. 42). The probation office calculated that the Sentencing Guidelines called for life imprisonment. (Dkt. 52 ¶ 40). The Court sentenced him 120 months, 240 months, 240 months, and life imprisonment, respectively, on the four counts, all to run concurrently. (Dkt. 48)

         In 2013, Defendant sought habeas relief from his life sentence based on Miller. (Dkt. 81). Miller established the requirement that juveniles, before being sentenced to life without parole, must receive "individualized sentencing decisions" in which judges "must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possibility penalty for juveniles." Id. at 2475. The parties, after counsel was appointed to Defendant, briefed the motion, but the case was stayed in favor of the resolution of relevant cases pending before the superior courts.

         On January 25, 2016, the United States Supreme Court held in Montgomery that Miller's prohibition against the imposition on a juvenile defendant of a life sentence without the possibility of parole was retroactive on collateral review. Montgomery, 136 at 729. Montgomery explained that "Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption." Id. at 733 (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court acknowledged "that a sentencer might encounter the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified." Id. But before a life without parole sentence could be imposed, "[a] hearing where ‘youth and its attendant characteristics' are considered as sentencing factors is necessary to separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not." Id. at 735 (citation omitted).

         This Court ordered the parties to file short supplemental briefs in light of Montgomery and to otherwise summarize their positions. They have done so, and the petition is ripe for decision.

         II. Discussion

         Miller and Montgomery establish a substantive rule of constitutional law: The Eighth Amendment prohibits sentencing a defendant who was under 18 at the time of his crime to life imprisonment, unless the sentencing court first takes account of the defendant's youthfulness and nevertheless finds he is irreparably corrupt. See Miller, 132 S.Ct. at 2460, 2468-69, 2471 ("Our decision does not categorically bar a penalty for a class of offenders or type of crime, " but rather "mandates only that a sentence follow a certain process-considering an offender's youth and attendant characteristics-before imposing a particular penalty"); Montgomery, 135 S.Ct. at 726 ("a lifetime in prison is disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children, those whose crimes reflect ‘irreparable corruption.'"), 733 ("Miller requires that before sentencing a juvenile to life without parole, the sentencing judge take into account ‘how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.'"), 734 (Miller "required sentencing courts to take children's age into account before condemning them to die in prison"). Put another way, if a State or the federal government wish to obtain a life sentence for a juvenile, they must secure from the sentencing court a determination that the defendant is beyond redemption, even after taking account of the indiscretions of youth. See Miller, 132 S.Ct. at 2464 (cataloguing "three significant gaps between juveniles and adults" that merit consideration).

         To be sure, Miller phrased this rule in regards to "mandatory" life sentences (not sentences where a court could give a non-life sentence but opts not to), a point on which the Government places emphasis. (Dkt. 98 at 4-5).[1] But that language is simply judicial shorthand for the proposition that the failure to take account of youthfulness when sentencing a juvenile to life imprisonment violates the Eight Amendment, as demonstrated by the quotations above. While Miller and Montgomery considered cases where statutory schemes made a life sentence mandatory, these statutes are just one manifestation of a broader constitutional defect: The failure to take proper account of youthfulness in life sentencing. So, absolutist statutes like those in Miller and Montgomery are facially unconstitutional. But a particular life sentence (even one stemming from a sentencing regime that permits a non-life sentence) would be unconstitutional as-applied if the sentencer did not abide by the commands of Miller and Montgomery.

         Once Miller, Montgomery, and their underpinning principles are understood, then, this habeas petition can be easily resolved.[2] Obviously, the Court at sentencing in 2009 did not have the benefit of Miller's and Montgomery's guidance. That point alone cuts in favor of resentencing. The Sentencing Guidelines that applied when he was sentenced in March 2009 (and which the Court considered) stated that "[a]ge (including youth) is not ordinary relevant in determining whether a departure is warranted." U.S.S.G. § 5H1.1 (2008 ed.); see also id. § 5H1.12. That presumption is directly at odds with Miller and Montgomery in a case, like this one, where the baseline sentenced under the Guidelines was life imprisonment. A similar point holds true regarding Guideline § 5H1.3, instructing that mental and emotional conditions of the offender should generally not be taken into consideration. See Miller, 132 S.Ct. at 2464 (discussing juveniles' inherent "lack of maturity, " "underdeveloped sense of responsibility, " gullibility, and malleable character traits); compare id. (children "have limited control over their own environment and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings") with U.S.S.G. § 5H1.6 ("family ties and responsibilities are not ordinarily relevant" in assessing sentencing departures).

         Likewise, in pronouncing sentence, the Court stated it took into consideration the factors listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), in addition to the aforementioned Sentencing Guidelines. (Dkt. 98-1 at 48 (Sentencing Transcript)). But the factors in that statute likewise do not account for the highly specific considerations required in cases to which Miller and Montgomery apply.

         After Montgomery was decided, the Government in supplemental briefing argued that Miller and Montgomery provide merely procedural, rather than substantive, protection. (Dkt. 103 at 3). In other words, the Government contends that "the new procedural rule announced in Montgomery cannot be considered retroactive, " and thus no relief (including resentencing) can be granted. (Id. at 4). The Supreme Court has ...

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