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Sneade v. Vargo

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

December 27, 2018

STEPHEN MICHAEL SNEADE, Petitioner,
v.
MARIE VARGO, Respondent.

          OPINION

          JOHN A. GIBNEY, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In April 1999, a judge sentenced Stephen Michael Sneade to life without parole for a murder he committed when he was sixteen, plus fifty years for the accompanying robbery and six years for related firearm convictions. Sneade filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, asking this Court to vacate his sentence and order a new sentencing proceeding because a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile homicide offender, without consideration of his youth and related circumstances, violates the Eighth Amendment. The respondent moved to dismiss. For the reasons stated below, the Court denies the respondent's motion to dismiss and conditionally grants Sneade's petition as to his entire sentence.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 1997, at the age of sixteen, Sneade shot and killed the co-owner of a local store during a robbery. In 1999, a jury in the Brunswick County Circuit Court convicted Sneade of capital murder, robbery, use of a firearm in the commission of a murder, and use of a firearm in the commission of a robbery. After hearing aggravating and mitigating evidence, the jury recommended a sentence of life without parole on the capital murder conviction. The presiding judge accepted this recommendation and, after an additional hearing on aggravating and mitigating circumstances regarding the robbery, sentenced Sneade to life without parole on the capital murder conviction, plus fifty years on the robbery and six years on the two firearm convictions, all to run consecutively.

         In June 2013, Sneade filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), which held unconstitutional two mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders. The Court stayed this case until the Supreme Court decided in 2016 that courts should apply Miller retroactively to cases on collateral review. Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). The Court then lifted the stay and, after additional briefing, held a hearing on the petition on June 7, 2016.

         After the hearing, the Court held the petition in abeyance pending the Virginia Supreme Court's decision in Jones v. Commonwealth, 293 Va. 29, 795 S.E.2d 705 (2017). On February 2, 2017, Jones announced that Virginia's sentencing scheme does not mandate life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders. 293 Va. at 41, 795 S.E.2d at 712. The Court again stayed this action until the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari in Jones on October 2, 2017. Jones v. Virginia, 138 S.Ct. 81 (Oct. 2, 2017) (mem.). Finally, on June 21, 2018, the Fourth Circuit decided that Miller and Montgomery apply regardless of a state's sentencing scheme, meaning their principles govern any case where a juvenile homicide offender received life without parole. Malvo v. Mathena, 893 F.3d 265 (4th Cir. 2018) ("Malvo II").

         II. DISCUSSION[1]

         A federal court may consider a petition for writ of habeas corpus from a person in state custody "only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). In this case, Sneade challenges the constitutionality of his entire state sentence (i.e., his sentences for the murder, robbery, and firearm convictions) in light of Miller and Montgomery, and asks for a resentencing hearing. As a threshold matter, Sneade has met the procedural requirements for habeas petitions, namely timeliness[2] and exhaustion.[3]

         A. Capital Murder Sentence

         The Court first looks to the rule announced in Miller and Montgomery, and then determines whether Sneade's capital murder sentence is unconstitutional under that rule.

         1. Miller and Montgomery

         In Miller, the Supreme Court found that two mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders violated "the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments.'" 567 U.S. at 465. Although Miller did not foreclose sentences of life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders, it required the sentencer "to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison." Id. at 480. The Court emphasized "individualized sentencing" for "the law's most serious punishments." Id. at 483.

         In Montgomery, the Supreme Court held that Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law, giving its rule retroactive effect in cases on collateral review. Montgomery explained, "Miller did bar life without parole ... for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility." 136 S.Ct. at 734 (emphasis added). This rare juvenile offender "exhibits . . . irretrievable depravity," and his "crime reflects irreparable corruption." Id. at 733-34 (describing the chance of finding such a juvenile offender as "uncommon") (quoting Miller, 567 U.S. at 471, 479-80).

         Procedurally, "Miller requires a sentencer to consider a juvenile offender's youth and attendant characteristics before determining that life without parole is a proportionate sentence." Id. at 734. The "attendant ...


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