Massachusetts leads, SCOTUS follows? Retroactivity in Juvenile Life Sentencing

Earlier this week, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana.  The transcript is available here.  The case addresses, along with jurisdictional concerns, whether the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama has retroactive effect.  In criminal cases, the Supreme Court’s rulings generally do not have retroactive effect unless the new rule is considered “substantive.” Miller declared mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for homicides committed by minors to be in violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and required judges in such cases to consider the defendant’s youth, background, and capacity for rehabilitation, as well as the nature of the crime, before handing down a sentence without parole. Miller followed Graham v. Florida (2010) which prohibited life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses.

Montgomery brings to SCOTUS the case of Henry Montgomery, a 69 year old who has been in prison since he was 17 years old for murdering a sheriff’s deputy in Baton Rouge.  He argued in state court that the Miller holding must be applied retroactively, thereby making him eligible for parole.  The case rose to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which held against Montgomery.  The US Supreme Court granted certiorari in late March of this year.  Louisiana argued in part that the Miller holding was not substantive enough to have retroactive effect, because life without parole sentences are still available for juveniles in homicide cases as long as they are not mandatory.

Should the Court find for Montgomery, about 1,500 prisoners convicted of homicide as juveniles and given mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole would suddenly gain parole eligibility.  While the Supreme Court is considering the case, analysts suggest that they may still skirt the question of Miller’s retroactive effect, waiting until a prisoner files suit under a federal habeas corpus statute rather than in state court.

Massachusetts dealt with this issue over the last couple of years.  In response to Miller, the SJC held in late December 2014 in Diatchenko v. District Attorney that all life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional in Massachusetts, even if imposed by a judge at her discretion. This decision came only weeks after the BBA approved principles opposing these sentences.  In Diatchenko, the justices considered – as had the Miller court — current scientific research showing that adolescent brains are not yet fully developed structurally or functionally before the age of 18.  But they reasoned that the proper conclusion is that a judge cannot possibly ascertain with any reasonable degree of certainty that a juvenile is irretrievably depraved and deserving of the life without parole punishment.

The plaintiff, Gregory Diatchenko, who had been serving a life without parole sentence for a murder he committed in 1981 at age 17, became immediately eligible for parole.  In addition, the Diatchenko holding also applied retroactively to other juvenile life without parole convicts who had served at least 15 years, making roughly 65 inmates suddenly parole eligible for the first time.  “Eligibility for parole” merely entitles an inmate to a hearing.  At that point it is up to the parole board to consider whether the prisoner has changed, has taken full responsibility for his or her actions, and poses no threat to public safety.  However, the ruling did eventually result in the release of at least a few individuals in Massachusetts who had been serving these sentences.

Diatchenko also invited the Legislature to revise its juvenile-murder sentencing scheme to come into line with the ruling which stated that juvenile offenders must receive a “meaningful opportunity” for parole, without defining the appropriate length of the mandatory portion of a sentence before eligibility. As we described, after a contentious hearing in May 2014, lawmakers agreed on a compromise bill, H4307, that would permit parole eligibility after 25-30 years for juveniles convicted of premeditated murder and after 30 years for juveniles found guilty of murder with extreme atrocity or cruelty.  Juveniles convicted of felony murder would be parole eligible after 20 to 30 years.  The bill was enacted in July 2014.

We are proud that the Massachusetts Judiciary and Legislature successfully addressed the retroactivity issue in the wake of Miller, and we hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will use Montgomery as an opportunity to set the record straight for the individuals in other states who are serving sentences under a sentencing scheme now recognized as unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.  A decision is expected by late spring, and we will keep you posted on the latest developments with this case.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association