United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division
C. CACHERIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.
Jason Michael Contreras (“Petitioner” or
“Contreras”) originally filed a petition for a
writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 with
this Court on June 25, 2013. [Dkt. 1.] In the petition,
Contreras alleges that he is being held in state custody in
violation of his federal constitutional rights, based on
Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012). Pet. at
state custody arises from a 1997 judgment of conviction
entered in Norfolk Circuit Court, following Petitioner's
guilty plea, on charges of first degree murder, robbery, use
of a firearm in the commission of a felony, and attempted
robbery. Pet. at 4. This Court previously denied
Petitioner's request for a writ, based primarily on its
untimeliness. [Dkt. 8.] The petition is now back before the
Court on remand, with instructions to reconsider this
Court's prior ruling in light of Montgomery v.
Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). For the reasons that
follow, the petition will be granted.
state charges stem from his involvement in a botched
carjacking that resulted in the death of David Semko
(“Semko”). Pet. at 13-14. Prior to the night in
question, Petitioner's childhood had been filled with
traumatic events, including a pattern of abuse and neglect,
his mother's drug addiction, an absentee father, several
stints in foster care, and consistently unstable housing.
Id. at 6-13. In fact, several weeks before the
offense occurred, Contreras's mother had moved him into a
crack house and then abandoned him, asking her drug dealers
to supervise him. Id. at 12. The drug dealers
interpreted this request as giving them permission to use
Petitioner to help them commit crimes. Id.
night of October 26, 1996, one of the drug dealers made
Contreras and another minor flip a coin to decide who would
have to commit a robbery. Pet. at 13. Petitioner lost, so the
drug dealer handed him a gun. Id. At that moment,
Semko happened to be walking to his car. Id.
Petitioner approached Semko, who ran. Id. In order
to prove to the drug dealer that Contreras had tried to rob
Semko, Petitioner fired a single shot “in[to] the pitch
blackness” in Semko's direction. Declaration of
Jason Contreras (“Contreras Decl.”) [Dkt. 1-1 at
27] ¶ 25. The shot hit Semko in the back, who died the
next day. Pet. at 5. At the time, Petitioner was only fifteen
years old. Id. at 14.
about October 30, 1996, Petitioner was arrested and charged
with capital murder, robbery, and several related offenses.
Pet. at 13-14. Even though he was a minor, Petitioner was
certified and charged as an adult. Id. at 14. At
that time, capital murder still carried a mandatory life
sentence in Virginia. See Yarbrough v. Commonwealth,
258 Va. 347, 366-69 (1999).
March 27, 1997, Petitioner pled guilty to first degree murder
along with the aforementioned charges. Pet. at 4. Prior to
the plea, Contreras's trial attorneys requested that the
court appoint a mental health expert to evaluate him.
Id. at 15. One attorney in particular worried that
Petitioner was “quite immature” and “was
really incapable of making an intelligent decision”
because “[he] had no clue what was going on in his case
. . . and could not even begin to absorb what was happening
to him.” Declaration of Attorney Kim M. Crump
(“Crump Decl.”) [Dkt. 1-1 at 19] ¶ 10. His
attorneys also noted that they had “a hard time getting
information [they] needed from him.” Id.
¶ 11. The trial court denied their request, however.
Pet. at 15. According to Petitioner, the only reason he
ultimately agreed to plead guilty was to avoid the life
sentence associated with a capital murder conviction.
20, 1997, following Petitioner's guilty plea, the court
sentenced Petitioner to seventy-seven years in prison. Pet.
at 4. Because Petitioner is ineligible for parole pursuant to
Va. Code § 53.1-165.1, which abolished parole for
individuals convicted of a felony committed after January 1,
1995, he will not be eligible for release until 2040.
See Va. Code § 53.1-40.01 (permitting
“Geriatric Release”). Petitioner did not file a
direct appeal of his sentence. Pet. at 4. On June 10, 1999,
Petitioner filed a pro se motion for habeas relief
in the Norfolk Circuit Court. Id. Following a
hearing, the court dismissed his motion. Id.
23, 2013, Petitioner filed the instant petition for a federal
writ of habeas corpus. [Dkt. 1.] Petitioner argues that his
guilty plea is invalid because it was induced by the
prosecutor's threat of a now unconstitutional sentence:
mandatory life without parole. Petitioner's argument
rests upon the recent Supreme Court case Miller v.
Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), which held that
mandatory life sentences for juveniles who commit homicide
offenses are unconstitutional. Pet. at 3. Applying
Miller retroactively, petitioner asks the Court to
“discharge [him] from his unconstitutional
confinement and restraint and/or relieve [him] from his
unconstitutional sentence.” Id. at 32.
Respondent moved to dismiss this petition on the grounds that
it is time-barred, the claims are unexhausted, and the
arguments are without merit. Resp't Br. at 3, 5, 17. This
Court granted Respondent's motion and dismissed the
petition, finding that Miller was not retroactive
and, therefore, the petition was untimely. [Dkt. 8.]
Petitioner appealed the Court's ruling to the Fourth
Circuit, which affirmed. [Dkt. 15.] Petitioner then appealed
to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed and
remanded the case for further consideration in light of
Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016).
December 9, 2016, Petitioner submitted a supplemental
pleading in support of his original petition for a writ of
habeas corpus. [Dkt. 22.] Respondent filed its response on
December 19, 2016. [Dkt. 23.] Petitioner failed to file a
reply. This petition is now ripe for disposition.