State ex rel. Alden Morgan v. State, No. 2015-KH-0100, 2016 WL 6125428 (La. Oct. 19, 2016)Juvenile defendant (age 17 at time of crime) was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 99 years imprisonment at hard labor without parole. After being denied relief on direct review, the defendant filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence, arguing that his 99-year sentence is an effective life sentence and, therefore, illegal under Graham. The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed. It characterized defendant’s sentence as the “functional equivalent of life without parole” and held that “a 99-year sentence without parole is illegal because it does not provide the defendant with a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” as required under Graham. It therefore construed La. R.S. 15:574.4(D), the state’s post-Graham legislation, “as applicable not just to those juvenile offenders serving a sentence of life for a nonhomicide offense, but also to those, like the defendant, serving an effective life sentence for a single nonhomicide offense which the legislature deems not so serious as to warrant an automatic life sentence.”

In rejecting the State’s argument that the Court was bound by the “life” versus “term-of-years” distinction, the Court emphasized the “central premise” of Graham, that “because a juvenile nonhomicide offender has diminished culpability, a sentence which, based upon a judgment at the time of sentencing, bars him from ever re-entering society, is grossly disproportional punishment.” It further noted that the Supreme Court in Graham characterized the sentence at issue as a “term-of-years sentence,” explaining: “arguably, the Supreme Court’s use of the ‘term-of-years’ label for Graham’s life sentence indicates any term-of-years sentence may implicate the rule, so long as its practical effect is to deny a meaningful opportunity for release.” Finally, it cited the paradox in the State’s position: that, if defendant’s 99-year sentence were permissible, he would remain incarcerated for the duration of his life whereas fellow inmates convicted of more serious offenses, who had received LWOP sentences, would become parole-eligible under Louisiana’s post-Graham and Miller legislation after serving only 30 or 35 years. Moreover, here, the defendant was convicted of a single offense and sentenced to a single term of imprisonment affording him no opportunity for release; therefore, “any concern about a policy that would afford an opportunity for parole to defendants convicted of multiple offenses is not implicated.”

Finding defendant’s effective life sentence illegal, the Louisiana Supreme Court amended the sentence to delete the restriction on parole eligibility and directed the Department of Corrections to set a date for parole eligibility consideration by the Board of Parole in accordance with La. R.S. 15:574.4(D).