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SJC Reviews Juvenile Sentencing Practices Post Miller

gavel-2-1236453-300x200In Commonwealth v. Perez, the Supreme Judicial Court reviewed a juvenile defendant’s sentence and ruled “that where a juvenile is sentenced for a nonmurder offense or offenses and the aggregate time to be served prior to parole eligibility exceeds that applicable to a juvenile convicted of murder, the sentence cannot be reconciled with art. 26 [of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights] unless, after a hearing on the factors articulated in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 477-478 (2012) (Miller hearing), the judge makes a finding that the circumstances warrant treating the juvenile more harshly for parole purposes than a juvenile convicted of murder.”

The background was as follows. “In the early morning hours of December 23, 2000, the juvenile defendant, … who was then seventeen years of age, embarked on a crime spree…. Accompanied by his adult uncle and armed with a handgun, the defendant committed two robberies … within a span of thirty minutes. While attempting a third robbery, he shot the intended victim, a plain-clothed … police officer. In November, 2001, a Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of armed robbery, armed assault with intent to rob, assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, and related firearms offenses.” “Before pronouncing sentence, the trial judge stated, ‘I recognize … that at the time of these offenses [the defendant] was only [seventeen] years old. And young men of the age of [seventeen] frequently do not have the maturity to make good judgments. But the law makes them responsible for their acts as adults, nonetheless.’” “The judge sentenced the defendant to multiple concurrent and consecutive terms, resulting in an aggregate sentence of thirty-two and one-half years, with parole eligibility after twenty-seven and one-half years. In 2015, after [the SJC’s] decision in Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 466 Mass. 655 (2013) (Diatchenko I), S.C., 471 Mass. 12 (2015)” — “declar[ing] unconstitutional G.L. c.265, §2, to the extent that it mandated a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of murder in the first degree” — the defendant filed a motion for resentencing under Mass. R. Crim. P. 30 (a).” In the motion, he “argu[ed] that [his] aggregate sentence … violated the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment under … art. 26 …, by requiring him to serve twelve and one-half years longer before parole eligibility than a juvenile defendant convicted of murder [who would be eligible for parole after fifteen years]…. A Superior Court judge denied the motion, and the defendant appealed.” “The crux of his [appellate] argument [was] that [the SJC’s] decision in Diatchenko I created a presumptive ceiling on parole eligibility for crimes less serious than murder, and that a sentence that treats him more harshly than a juvenile convicted of murder therefore violates the principle of proportionality inherent in art. 26.”

In its decision, the SJC stated, “Because the juvenile defendant’s sentences are presumptively disproportionate under art. 26, and the judge imposed the sentences without the benefit of a Miller hearing, we vacate the denial of the defendant’s rule 30 motion” and “remand the case … for a Miller hearing and, if necessary, for resentencing.” In so ruling, the Court applied “‘[the] tripartite analysis [set forth in Cepulonis v. Commonwealth, 384 Mass. 495, 497 (1981)] to determine whether [the] defendant ha[d] met his burden’ to establish a disproportionality of constitutional dimensions…. ‘The first prong of the disproportionality test requires inquiry into the “nature of the offense and the offender in light of the degree of harm to society.”…. The second prong of the … analysis involves a comparison between the sentence imposed here and punishments prescribed for the commission of more serious crimes in the Commonwealth…. The final prong … [of] the disproportionality analysis is a comparison of the challenged penalty with the penalties prescribed for the same offense in other jurisdictions.’ Cepulonis [] at 497-498,” quoting from Commonwealth v. Jackson, 369 Mass. 904, 910 (1976). “Based on the Cepulonis analysis,” the SJC concluded that “a juvenile defendant’s aggregate sentence for nonmurder offenses with parole eligibility exceeding that applicable to a juvenile defendant convicted of murder is presumptively disproportionate. That presumption is conclusive, absent a hearing to consider whether extraordinary circumstances warrant a sentence treating the juvenile defendant more harshly for parole purposes than a juvenile convicted of murder. That inquiry” must be based on the factors set forth in Miller, i.e., “factors specifically related to the juvenile’s age”: “(1) the particular attributes of the juvenile, including ‘immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences’; (2) ‘the family and home environment that surrounds [the juvenile] from which he cannot usually extricate himself’; and (3) ‘the circumstances of the … offense, including the extent of [the juvenile’s] participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him.’ Id., [567 U.S.] at 477. Only after the judge weighs those factors, applies them uniquely to the juvenile defendant, and considers whether a punishment exceeding that applicable to a juvenile convicted of murder (at least with respect to parole eligibility) is appropriate in the circumstances, may such a sentence be imposed.” Here, noted the SJC, “the judge expressly declined to consider the juvenile defendant’s age as a mitigating factor.” “Instead, he concluded that ‘the law makes them responsible for their acts as adults, nonetheless.’…. Accordingly, the purpose of the Miller hearing has not been met in this case.

The law is constantly evolving and it is extremely important to have an attorney who is up to date on any changes in the law, and who is prepared to make a creative argument based on new legal developments – had the attorney here not been aware of the developments in juvenile law and been willing and able to incorporate these new developments into his argument, the defendant in this case might still be sitting in jail. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is constantly reviewing new SJC decisions to make sure that he can make the best arguments for his clients and zealously represent them in court. Call him for a free consultation today.