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Johnson v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia

December 15, 2016

RAHEEM CHABEZZ JOHNSON
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

          FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA

          Lemons, C.J., Goodwyn, Mims, McClanahan, and Powell, JJ., and Russell and Millette, S.JJ.

          OPINION

          CLEO E. POWELL, JUSTICE

         Raheem Chabezz Johnson ("Johnson") appeals the trial court's refusal to appoint a neuropsychologist at the Commonwealth's expense to assist in the preparation of his presentence report pursuant to Code § 19.2-299(A). Johnson further takes issue with the Court of Appeals' affirmance of the trial court's decision to impose a life sentence. According to Johnson, the life sentence imposed by the trial court was in violation of the Eighth Amendment because the trial court failed to afford him the opportunity to present evidence about youth and its attendant characteristics.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On April 11, 2011, Johnson shot and killed Timothy Irving. At the time, Johnson was two months short of his eighteenth birthday. On June 1, 2011, Johnson was indicted on eight felonies, including capital murder. After his indictment but before trial, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012). As a result, the Commonwealth amended the indictment to reduce the capital murder charge to first degree murder. A jury subsequently convicted Johnson of all eight felonies.

         The trial court ordered a presentence report and continued the matter for sentencing. On August 3, 2012, Johnson moved to have Joseph Conley, Ph.D. ("Dr. Conley"), a neuropsychologist, appointed at the Commonwealth's expense, to serve as an expert to assist in the preparation for his sentencing hearing. In his motion, Johnson noted that Dr. Conley had "devoted his practice to the study of the maturation of the brain and its functioning." Johnson argued that Dr. Conley would "provide relevant facts specific to Raheem C. Johnson so as 'to fully advise the court' of all matters specific to Raheem C. Johnson and allow the fashioning of a sentence in compliance with the 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution."

         At a hearing on the matter, Johnson argued that Dr. Conley's assistance was necessary because the probation officer charged with compiling the presentence report "does not have the ability to collect the necessary details about what is happening within [Johnson's] mind, how [Johnson's] mind has developed." Johnson asserted that Dr. Conley's "facts or unique abilities" would allow him to develop "other relevant facts needed to individualize the punishment that [the trial court] is going to have to mete out." In response, the Commonwealth stated that Johnson had not demonstrated the requisite particularized need to have Dr. Conley appointed at the Commonwealth's expense because it was "common sense" that a juvenile is less mature than an adult. The Commonwealth also noted that Johnson was not facing life without parole because Johnson would be eligible for geriatric parole at age 60.

         After considering the matter, the trial court denied Johnson's motion. The trial court noted that nothing in Johnson's record supported his position that such an evaluation was needed. It further stated that Johnson had not shown a particularized need because, in the trial court's opinion, Miller did not require such an evaluation in every case where the accused was a juvenile at the time of the offense.

         Prior to sentencing, Johnson submitted four articles that discuss brain development and legal culpability. At the sentencing hearing, the trial court acknowledged that it had read the articles Johnson submitted and considered them along with the presentence report and Johnson's school records. After hearing argument from the parties, the trial court stated:

Mr. Johnson, in this case we had a helpless victim, the shooting was unprovoked, and it was cruel and callous. It was just mean. It was, it's as cruel and callous as anything I've seen since I've been sitting here on the bench, and that's been awhile. Just totally unnecessary to put a bullet in this young man's head.

         The trial court then proceeded to sentence Johnson to life in prison for the first degree murder charge plus an additional 42 years for the other seven charges.

         Johnson filed a motion to reconsider, arguing that the trial court failed to properly consider the articles he submitted and the Supreme Court's ruling in Miller before imposing Johnson's sentence. Johnson further asserted that, by imposing a life sentence, the trial court ignored the fact that, statistically, geriatric parole was not a realistic opportunity to obtain early release. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing.

         In a letter opinion, the trial court explained that it imposed a life sentence "after careful consideration of [Johnson's] individual characteristics as reflected in the record, including without limitation the presentence report and school records." The trial court also reiterated that it had reviewed the articles Johnson submitted. The trial court noted the "horrendous nature of the crime" and determined that Johnson's "history of disrespect for authority and aggressive behavior which, coupled with the brutality of the offense, make [Johnson] . . . a danger to himself and others should he be returned to society."

         Johnson appealed the trial court's refusal to appoint a neuropsychologist and its decision to impose a life sentence to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals denied Johnson's petition for appeal with regard to the denial of his motion for a neuropsychologist, but granted his petition with regard to the sentence imposed. In a published opinion, the Court of Appeals subsequently determined that, because a sentence of life did not exceed the statutory maximum penalty for first-degree murder, the trial court had not erred. Johnson v. Commonwealth, 63 Va.App. 175, 182-85, 755 S.E.2d 468, 471-73 (2014). The Court of Appeals further held that, because Johnson was not facing a mandatory life sentence, Miller did not apply. Id. at 183-84, 755 S.E.2d at 472.

         Johnson appeals.

         II. ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Johnson argues that the Court of Appeals erred in refusing to consider his appeal related to the trial court's denial of the motion for the appointment of a neuropsychologist on his behalf at the Commonwealth's expense. Additionally, he asserts that, under Miller, the Court of Appeals erred in affirming the trial court's decision to impose a life sentence because he was not afforded the opportunity to present evidence regarding youth and its attendant consequences.

         A. Motion for a Neuropsychologist

         Johnson contends that the trial court erred in denying his motion for the appointment of a neuropsychologist on his behalf at the Commonwealth's expense because he demonstrated a particularized need for the services of a neuropsychologist. Johnson asserts that he demonstrated the requisite "particularized need" established by this Court in Husske v. Commonwealth, 252 Va. 203, 476 S.E.2d 920 (1996). He also relies on the fact that Code § 19.2-299(A) requires that a presentence report include "other relevant facts." Johnson claims that evidence relating to his physiology or psychology were such "other relevant facts." Thus, according to Johnson, even in the absence of showing a particularized need, the services of a neuropsychologist were necessary to provide a complete presentence report. He further asserts that such evidence was necessary to allow the trial court to "tailor" the punishment to him. We disagree.

          This Court has recognized that, upon request, the Commonwealth is required to "provide indigent defendants with 'the basic tools of an adequate defense.'" Husske, 252 Va.at 211, 476 S.E.2d at 925 (quoting Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68, 77 (1985)). However, "an indigent defendant's constitutional right to the appointment of an expert, at the Commonwealth's expense, is not absolute." Id. Rather,

an indigent defendant who seeks the appointment of an expert witness, at the Commonwealth's expense, must demonstrate that the subject which necessitates the assistance of the expert is "likely to be a significant factor in his defense, " and that he will be prejudiced by the lack of expert assistance. An indigent defendant may satisfy this burden by demonstrating that the services of an expert would materially assist him in the preparation of his defense and that the denial of such services would result in a ...

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