State v. Valencia (State v. Healer), — P. 3d —, 2016 WL 7422256 (Ariz. Dec. 23, 2016) – Juvenile defendants, Valencia and Healer, were convicted of first-degree murder and various other offenses. They were each sentenced to “natural life in prison.” Each defendant filed petitions for post-conviction relief, arguing Miller is applicable to their respective life sentences, and that under Miller, Arizona’s sentencing scheme is unconstitutional because a life sentence was essentially a sentence of life without a meaningful opportunity for release due to the abolition of parole. Each also argued that Arizona’s sentencing scheme is unconstitutional because it fails to take into account the attendant characteristics of youth and that the trial court failed to give proper weight to youth and its attendant characteristics. Each defendant sought resentencing. The trial court in each proceeding summarily denied relief and the defendants appealed.
On appeal, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that Miller, as construed by Montgomery, constituted a significant change in the law entitling defendants to resentencing under Rule 32.1(g) and further held that “the sentencing court must determine whether the juvenile defendant’s crimes reflect [ ] transient immaturity, or whether the defendant’s crimes instead reflect permanent incorrigibility. Only in the latter case may the sentencing court impose a sentence of natural life.” On review, the Arizona Supreme Court agreed that Miller constituted a significant change in the law that might warrant resentencing. It noted that defendants’ natural life sentences were not mandatory and were imposed only after the sentencing court considered their ages. Nonetheless, Miller, as clarified by Montgomery, “reflects a substantive holding that life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity.” It therefore constitutes a “clear break from the past for purposes of Rule 32.1(g)” because “Arizona law, when Healer and Valencia were sentenced, allowed a trial court to impose a natural life sentence on a juvenile convicted of first degree murder without distinguishing crimes that reflected ‘irreparable corruption’ rather than the ‘transient immaturity of youth.’” To be entitled to resentencing in light of Miller, the court explained, defendants must establish that Miller would probably overturn their sentences.
Here, “the failure of the sentencing courts to expressly determine whether the juvenile defendants’ crimes reflected irreparable corruption do not in themselves entitle Valencia and Healer to post-conviction relief.” Instead, defendants are entitled to evidentiary hearings at which “they will have an opportunity to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that their crimes did not reflect irreparable corruption by instead transient immaturity. Only if they meet this burden will they establish that their natural life sentences are unconstitutional, thus entitling them to resentencing.” Remanded for further proceedings.