Supreme Court Issues Decisions on Juvenile Life without Parole, the Death Penalty, and State Procedural Bars to Federal Habeas
The U.S. Supreme Court issued three recent brief decisions of interest to public defenders.
Miller & Montgomery fallout
In Adams v. Alabama, the Court, on May 23, vacated and remanded for reconsideration in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), judgments in several cases involving juveniles who had been sentenced to life in prison without parole after having originally received the death penalty.
Although the Adams opinion itself was merely a standard two-sentence order vacating and remanding the case, four justices wrote concurring opinions raising issues for future litigation involving juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole before Miller.
The Court in Montgomery held that its decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), which banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, was retroactive.
The juveniles in Adams had originally been sentenced to death, before the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for juveniles in 2005. After that, the juveniles’ sentences had been reduced to life in prison without parole. The juveniles sought further relief after Miller.
Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, concurred in the decision to remand Adams for reconsideration. But he wrote that these juveniles may not be entitled to further relief because their capital juries had already considered mitigating circumstances, such as their youth, and determined that they deserved the higher punishment of death.
“In these cases, the sentencer necessarily rejected the argument that the defendant’s youth and immaturity called for the lesser sentence of life imprisonment without parole,” Alito said. “It can therefore be argued that such a sentencer would surely have felt that the defendant’s youth and immaturity did not warrant an even lighter sentence” that might lead to release.
“In cases in which a juvenile offender was originally sentenced to death after the sentencer considered but rejected youth as a mitigating factor, courts are free on remand to evaluate whether any further individualized consideration is required,” Alito concluded.
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, rejected Alito’s approach.
Sotomayor wrote that Miller “did not merely impose an ‘individualized sentencing requirement.’” It imposed a “substantive rule” that life without parole is appropriate only for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,” not “transient immaturity.”
“There is no indication that, when the factfinders in these cases considered petitioners’ youth, they even asked the question Miller required them not only to answer, but to answer correctly: whether petitioners’ crimes reflected ‘transient immaturity’ or ‘irreparable corruption,’” Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor concluded that there was “no shortcut” to resolving these cases.
Justice Thomas wrote that the juveniles may not be entitled to relief due to issues such as an adequate and independent state bar for denying relief, forfeiture of their claims by pleading guilty with a plea agreement waiving relief, or whether their sentences actually qualify as a mandatory life without parole sentence.
In a brief per curiam opinion, Lynch v. Arizona, decided May 31, the Court reaffirmed that when a capital defendant’s future dangerousness is at issue, and the only sentencing alternative to death is life in prison without parole, due process entitles the defendant to inform the jury of his parole ineligibility, either by jury instruction or arguments by counsel.
The Court had adopted this rule in Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154 (1994). Despite this, an Arizona judge granted a State motion in Shawn Lynch’s death penalty trial to preclude defense counsel from informing the jury that the only alternative sentence was life without parole.
After Lynch was sentenced to death, the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed on grounds that under Arizona law, Lynch could have received a life sentence making him eligible for release after 25 years if granted executive clemency.
“[U]nder state law, the only kind of release for which Lynch would have been eligible – as the State does not contest – is executive clemency,” the U.S. Supreme Court said. “Simmons expressly rejected the argument that the possibility of clemency diminishes a capital defendant’s right to inform a jury of his parole ineligibility.”
The Court also rejected Arizona’s contention that the legislature could grant parole in the future. “Simmons said that the potential for ‘legislative reform’ could not justify refusing a parole-ineligibility instruction,” the Court said.
Justices Thomas and Alito dissented.
State procedural bar to federal habeas
In a brief per curiam opinion, Johnson v. Lee, decided May 31, a unanimous Court held that a rule of the California Supreme Court, which procedurally defaults claims raised for the first time in collateral review that could have been raised on direct appeal, bars federal habeas review of those claims.
“Federal habeas courts generally refuse to hear claims ‘defaulted … in state court pursuant to an independent and adequate state procedural rule,’” the U.S. Supreme Court explained.
To bar federal habeas review, a state rule must be “firmly established and regularly followed.”
The California rule is “firmly established” because the California Supreme Court has “warned” defendants for “decades” that habeas claims will not be considered if the errors could have been, but were not, raised on direct appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court said.
The California rule is also “regularly followed” because it is repeatedly cited in state court, the Court said. The Court rejected the argument that the rule was inconsistently applied merely because the California courts sometimes did not cite the rule.
The U.S. Supreme Court noted that California’s rule is not unique, and that federal and state courts across the country follow a similar rule.
Finally, the Court found “no reason to reject California’s [procedural] bar simply because a [state] court may opt to bypass the [bar] and summarily dismiss a petition on the merits, if that is the easier path.”