In 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court decided in State v. Riley, 110 A.3d 1205 (Conn. 2015), that Miller’s holding extends to both lengthy term-of-years sentences that are the functional equivalent of life without parole and life-without-parole sentences imposed in a discretionary regime. A trial court may not impose discretionary life without parole (or the functional equivalent of life without parole) without first giving mitigating effect to the defendant’s youth and its attendant circumstances. The record must clearly reflect the court considered these factors before imposing the sentence. The court also noted that there is a presumption against imposing a life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile without first overcoming it with evidence of unusual circumstances.
State v. Riley, 110 A.3d 1205 (Conn. 2015) – (Direct Appeal) – Juvenile defendant (age 17 at time of crimes) was convicted of one count of murder, two counts of first-degree assault, and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. He was sentenced to a total effective term of 100 years in prison. It was undisputed that this sentence is the functional equivalent of LWOP. In stating its basis for imposing this sentence, the trial court made no reference to the defendant’s age at the time of the crimes. Miller was decided while this case was pending on direct appeal. The Supreme Court of Connecticut reversed the sentence and remanded for resentencing. The court reasoned that in light of its rationale, Miller extends beyond mandatory sentencing schemes. “We read the import of Miller as impacting two aspects of sentencing: (1) that a lesser sentence than [LWOP] must be available for a juvenile offender; and (2) that the sentencer must consider age related evidence as mitigation when deciding whether to irrevocably sentence juvenile offenders to a lifetime in prison.” Accordingly, the court held that Miller may be violated even when the sentencing authority has discretion to impose a lesser sentence than LWOP “if it fails to give due weight to evidence that Miller deemed constitutionally significant before determining that such a severe punishment is appropriate.” The court also noted that language in Miller—which suggested that once a court considers the mitigating factors of youth that imposing the harshest penalty for juveniles would be uncommon—in effect, established a presumption against imposing an LWOP sentence on a juvenile without first overcoming it with evidence of unusual circumstances. “This presumption logically would extend to discretionary schemes that authorize such a sentence.” (emphasis added). Further, the court noted that an LWOP sentence “is no less harsh if imposed pursuant to an exercise of discretion” rather than mandatorily. Thus, the court concluded that “Miller logically indicates that, if a sentencing scheme permits the imposition of [LWOP] on a juvenile homicide offender, the trial court must consider the offender’s ‘chronological age and its hallmark features’ as mitigating against such a severe sentence.” (emphasis in original). The court listed the factors that must be considered, and stated “the record must reflect that the trial court has considered and given due mitigating weight to these factors in determining a proportionate punishment.” Here, there was only an “oblique reference to age,” and nothing that addressed the defendant’s immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. “Accordingly, the record [did] not clearly reflect that the court considered and gave mitigating weight to the defendant’s youth and its hallmark features when considering whether to impose the functional equivalent of [LWOP].” Therefore, the defendant was entitled to a new sentencing proceeding that conforms to the dictates of Miller. (The court did not decide whether Graham’s “second look” opportunity—i.e. precluding the sentencer from determining at the outset that a juvenile offender is beyond rehabilitation, thus requiring that such offenders be afforded a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation if sentenced to life in prison—should extend to juvenile homicide offenders