Veal v. State, 298 Ga. 691 (2016) – Juvenile defendant (age 17 at time of crimes) was convicted of murder and rape committed in the course of two armed robberies. He was sentenced to life without parole for the murder conviction, to run consecutively with 6 consecutive life with parole sentences, plus 60 more consecutive years for the other convictions. Under Georgia law, life without parole is discretionary but not mandatory for a murder conviction. On appeal, defendant argued that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court of Georgia held that “[t]he Supreme Court of the United States recently made clear that [the defendant] is correct.” The Supreme Court of Georgia vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing.
The court reasoned that “[h]ad this appeal been decided before Montgomery, we might have upheld the trial court’s rulings on Appellant’s belated Miller-based Eighth Amendment claim.” The court noted its previous view that “because Miller did not purport to prohibit LWOP sentences for juvenile murderers, so long as sentencing courts properly exercise discretion in imposing such sentences, Miller appeared to establish a procedural rule—a process which, if the sentencing court did not follow it correctly, would result in a juvenile’s LWOP sentence being . . . voidable, in that the same sentence might be imposed on remand in a given case if the court the second time around properly followed the process.” However, “the explication of Miller by the majority in Montgomery demonstrates that our previous understanding of Miller—and the trial court’s ruling on [Veal’s] Miller claim—was wrong.” The court noted: “although Miller did not outlaw LWOP sentences for the category of all juvenile murderers, Montgomery holds that . . . ‘the sentence of [LWOP] is disproportionate for the vast majority of juvenile offenders.’” (emphasis in original). The court stated: “[A] sentence imposed in violation of this substantive rule—that is, an LWOP sentence imposed on a juvenile who is not properly determined to be in the very small class of juveniles for whom such a sentence may be deemed constitutionally proportionate—‘is not just erroneous but contrary to law and, as a result, void.’” (quoting Montgomery) (emphasis in original). The court stressed:
The Montgomery majority explains . . . that by uncommon, Miller meant exceptionally rare, and that determining whether a juvenile falls into that exclusive realm turns not on the sentencing court’s consideration of his age and the qualities that accompany youth along with all of the other circumstances of the given case, but rather on a specific determination that he is irreparably corrupt. Thus, Montgomery emphasizes that a life without parole sentence is permitted only in “exceptional circumstances,” for “the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible”; for “those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption”—and not, it is repeated twice, for “the vast majority of juvenile offenders.” The Supreme Court has now made it clear that life without parole sentences may be constitutionally imposed only on the worst-of-the-worst juvenile murderers, much like the Supreme Court has long directed that the death penalty may be imposed only on the worst-of-the-worst adult murderers.
(quoting Montgomery) (footnote omitted; emphasis in original). The court noted that “[i]n this case, the trial court appears generally to have considered [Veal’s] age and perhaps some of its associated characteristics, along with the overall brutality of the crimes for which he was convicted, in sentencing him to serve [LWOP] . . . The trial court did not, however, make any sort of distinct determination on the record that [Veal] is irreparably corrupt or permanently incorrigible, as necessary to put him in the narrow class of juvenile murderers to whom an LWOP sentence is proportional under the Eighth Amendment as interpreted in Miller and as refined by Montgomery.” The court vacated the life-without-parole sentence and remanded for resentencing on that count in accordance with this opinion, Miller, and Montgomery.