Davis v. State, No. S-16-0291, 2018 WL 1773399 (Wyo. April 13, 2018) – Defendant, age 17 at the time of the crime, pled guilty (pre-Miller) to first-degree murder, felony murder, and aggravated robbery. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a consecutive twenty-to-fifty-year sentence for aggravated robbery. After Miller, Montgomery, and related state cases and legislative reform—and after serving more than 33 years in prison—the defendant filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence. His life sentence was converted to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years and, shortly thereafter, the defendant was paroled from his life sentence to begin serving time on his 20-to-50-year sentence for aggravated robbery.
In a supplemental motion to correct an illegal sentence, he argued that his new aggregate sentence (life lasting a minimum of 25 years plus consecutive 20-to-50-years) remains a de facto life sentence with no meaningful change of release during his lifetime. The state agreed that the defendant was entitled to an individualized sentencing hearing. The district court held a sentencing hearing at which it considered testimony and evidence of the defendant’s post-crime behavior and rehabilitation; ultimately, it imposed the original sentence, concluding that the “Defendant in this matter is one of those rare cases where the sentence previously imposed was appropriate and the Court therefore declines to modify it.”
Defendant appealed. Citing Bear Cloud III, the Wyoming Supreme Court agreed with the defendant that his aggregate sentence—providing for release, at the earliest, after 46 years in prison, at age 64—was the functional equivalent of life without parole. It explained, however, that that fact alone does not render his sentence necessarily unconstitutional, assuming it was imposed after a proper, individualized sentencing hearing. It next considered the procedures required for an individualized sentencing hearing under Miller and Montgomery. It concluded: “A sentencing court must begin its analysis with the premise that in all but the rarest of circumstances, a life-without-parole (or the functional equivalent thereof) sentence will most likely be disproportionate to the juvenile before it,” citing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision in Batts to formalize this presumption against imposing a life sentence without parole or its equivalent on juvenile offenders. “[T]he State bears the burden of overcoming that presumption at sentencing,” and it must do so with proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That is, “The State can overcome the presumption against the imposition of a life-without-parole sentence (or the functional equivalent of such a sentence) with proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the juvenile offender is irreparably corrupt, in other words, beyond the possibility of rehabilitation. To satisfy this burden, the State must address the factors set forth in Miller and Bear Cloud II.” The Court further confirmed that before imposing a sentence of life without parole or its equivalent on a juvenile offender, the sentencing court must find that, “in light of all the Miller factors, the juvenile offender’s crime reflects irreparable corruption resulting in permanent incorrigibility, rather than transient immaturity.” Moreover, “to afford meaningful review, the sentencing court should carefully weigh each relevant Miller factor and set forth its reasoning when it determines whether the State has overcome the presumption that the juvenile is one of the majority of juveniles capable of rehabilitation.”
Noting the difficulty in differentiating between the juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect unfortunate yet transient immaturity and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption, the Court next considered whether expert testimony on that point would be required; it concluded that whether expert testimony is required should be determined on a case-by-case basis. The Court further clarified that a sentencing court may consider any accurate, relevant evidence, including the juvenile offender’s prison record, when making a retroactive Miller determination. The sentencing court ought also consider the juvenile offender’s relevant characteristics at the time of his original sentencing, which can be used as a baseline to show whether and how the juvenile offender conformed to or departed from developmental norms.
Finally, the Court concluded that it would review such sentencing decisions for an abuse of discretion, “but will not be lenient,” viewing life without parole as “inherently suspect” and “demand[ing] rigor from the sentencing court in its factual findings, its application of the Miller factors, and the ensuing sentence.” Legal conclusions would be subject to de novo review. Applying these new procedures and standards to the resentencing at issue, the Court concluded that that district court abused its discretion. First, the district court abused its discretion by refusing to consider the defendant’s youth (almost 18 years old) as a mitigating factor. It also found abuse of discretion in the district court’s finding that the circumstances of the crime weighed against mitigation, noting that court’s undue focus on the gruesomeness of the crime. It also took issue with the district court’s treatment of juvenile psychological evaluations and with its “erroneous” conclusion that the defendant was “an essentially emancipated minor functioning as an adult” at the time of the crime. It also found abuse of discretion in the conclusion that the defendant’s prison record supported a finding that he was incapable of rehabilitation “without taking into account the fact that for the majority of his incarceration he had no hope of release.” Finally, it noted that the district court failed to make a finding of permanent incorrigibility based on its analysis of the Miller factors. Thus, it reversed, remanding for an additional sentencing hearing and resentencing, explaining that “[o]n remand, the sentencing court should approach the case with the understanding that, more likely than not, life without parole is a disproportionate sentence for [the defendant], and it should consider the Miller factors and decide whether he is the truly rare individual mentioned in Miller who is incapable of reform.” Reversed and remanded.