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Life sentence for Louisiana man convicted for juvenile crime found to be unconstitutional

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore

Life sentence for Louisiana man convicted for juvenile crime found to be unconstitutional

A 22-year-old Baton Rouge man sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when he was a juvenile will now have a chance to get out of prison after the Louisiana Supreme Court held that his sentence is unconstitutional.

Thayer Green was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole after he was arrested in 2012 for battery and home invasion of a residence where the mother of his child lived. He had previously been convicted of simple burglary and simple robbery. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore successfully sought a life sentence on the home invasion charge under the state’s habitual offender statute.

On appeal, Green’s counsel argued that his life sentence conflicted with Graham v. Florida, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case which found that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses. In that decision, as well as subsequent rulings addressing juvenile sentencing, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted how “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.”

Prosecutors argued that Graham didn’t apply because Green had committed multiple offenses before being convicted and sentenced for this crime. But the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected that argument.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Graham was founded on the notion that juvenile non-homicide offenders, because of their youth and greater capacity for reform, are significantly less culpable than adults who have committed the same or worse offenses, and therefore deserve different treatment at sentencing,” the Louisiana Supreme Court said in its ruling. The Court also questioned the use of prior juvenile convictions to be used to enhance Green’s sentence.

The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed that Graham prohibited a determination to be made that someone like Green, who was a juvenile at the time of the offense, “will never be fit to rejoin society.” Following the holding in Graham, the Court held that Louisiana “must give such an offender a ‘meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.’” Accordingly, the Court ordered the Louisiana Department of Corrections to remove the restriction on Green’s parole eligibility.

The justices also sent Green’s case back to state District Judge Chip Moore for a hearing on whether the trial court’s initial decision to impose consecutive sentences constituted “excessive punishment” under Louisiana law.

Mike Mitchell, East Baton Rouge Parish’s chief public defender, said he would seek to show that Green is capable of rehabilitation and should have a chance at release.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

Florida death row inmate becomes the state’s 27th exoneree

Florida death row inmate becomes the state’s 27th exoneree

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that a man sentenced to death must be acquitted because there was insufficient evidence to convict him.

Ralph Wright Jr., a former Air Force airman, becomes the 27th death row inmate in Florida to be exonerated. Wright was exonerated for the 2007 murder of his girlfriend and their baby son in St. Petersburg.

State Attorney Bernie McCabe’s office prosecuted Wright, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 2013. On direct appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, the justices found that the evidence against Wright was not sufficient to justify his convictions.

“Although the facts established at trial support a strong suspicion of guilt, they are not inconsistent with innocence,” the Court held in a unanimous ruling. “We therefore conclude that the evidence is insufficient to sustain Wright’s convictions. Accordingly, we reverse the convictions, vacate the sentences of death, and remand with directions to enter judgments of acquittal.”

The prosecution’s theory was that Wright was the only person with a motive to commit the crimes. Yet as the Court stressed in its opinion:

There is no fingerprint, footprint, blood, fiber, pattern impression, or other physical evidence tying Wright to the crime scene. There is no cell tower evidence placing him in the vicinity of the crime scene. There are no inculpatory statements. There is no murder weapon. The only evidence presented by the State to prove that Wright was the murderer is the fact that he had motive and opportunity. But while motive and opportunity might create a suspicion that Wright committed the murders, even deep suspicions are not sufficient to sustain the convictions.

Floridians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty say this ruling shows that the death penalty doesn’t work.

“Wright’s release today highlights the serious and tragic flaws in Florida’s death penalty system as Florida continues to have by far the nation’s highest number of exonerations of wrongfully convicted people on death row,” the organization said in a statement.

The ruling is also a blow for McCabe, the long time chief elected prosecutor in Pinellas and Pasco counties who has a history of excessive prosecutions.

McCabe once garnered national and international attention when he prosecuted a teenage girl for murder after she shot herself while pregnant in a suicide attempt and the fetus died. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that McCabe could not prosecute the teenager, rejecting what it called the prosecution‘s efforts to “mak[e]…social policy” by seeking to “pit woman against fetus in criminal court.”

McCabe also vocally defended a Florida law that allowed people to be sentenced to death with only seven of 12 jurors supporting execution. That law was later found to be unconstitutional by the U.S Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida, a decision that placed approximately 300 death sentences in Florida in legal limbo.

Thanks to Jake Sussman.

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions & the uncertain legal status of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Attorney General Jeff Sessions & the uncertain legal status of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Since becoming attorney general, Jeff Sessions has announced plans to ramp up civil forfeiture laws, revive prosecutions for crimes involving small amounts of marijuana, and charge defendants with crimes that carry more severe penalties. He has also come out with outlandish policies on immigration-related crimes and consent decrees with local police departments, and reversed the Department of Justice’s position in the ongoing Texas voter-discrimination litigation.

Sessions’ positions are not only unjustifiably punitive; some of them also undermine the premises of a recently decided Supreme Court case.

In their March ruling in Beckles v. United Statesthe justices held that the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, legislative rules that identify sentencing ranges for defendants based on their conduct and criminal history, are not subject to the vagueness doctrine, the constitutional prohibition against vague penal laws, which are problematic because they fail to provide adequate notice that certain behaviors are proscribed. Prior to 2005, a statute required federal judges to sentence defendants within the range specified by the guidelines. In United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court held that viewing the guidelines as mandatory violated the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee to a trial by jury. Booker invalidated the statutory provision that required judges to sentence defendants within the range specified in the guidelines and rendered them “advisory.” Accordingly, federal judges are no longer required by statute to sentence a defendant within the range provided for in the guidelines. But the guidelines still play a significant role in federal sentencing for a variety of reasons, and the vast majority of federal sentences continue to fall within the ranges they specify. Federal judges must begin sentencing by calculating a range based on the guidelines and must adequately explain their decision to deviate from it.

In holding that the guidelines are not subject to the vagueness doctrine, Beckles repeatedly emphasized that the guidelines are advisory and “merely guide the exercise of a court’s discretion.” The court concluded that a defendant could be sentenced under a guideline that uses the same exact language that the court had previously held was unconstitutionally void for vagueness when it appeared in a criminal statute. In Johnson v. United States, the Court had held that the Armed Career Criminal Act’s residual clause, which increases the sentences of defendants who were convicted of crimes that “otherwise involve[] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another,” was unconstitutionally void for vagueness. The guideline at issue in Beckles (the “career offender” guideline) used the exact same words: It provided sentencing ranges for defendants who were convicted of crimes that “otherwise involve[] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

In part because the guidelines are advisory, federal prosecutors are not required to request sentences within the ranges they outline. In fact, federal prosecutors routinely request courts not to impose sentences that fall within the range recommended by the “career offender” Guideline. Representatives of the federal defenders office assembled data and testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission that the government recommends a sentencing range that is lower than the range provided for by the guidelines in almost half of the cases where the “career offender” guideline applied. Prosecutors opt not to ask for sentences within the range provided for by the career offender guideline because the guideline is so draconian. The guideline doubles the sentence of drug offenders, and in Mr. Beckles’ case, his sentencing range jumped from 15 years to more than 30 years because of the career offender guideline.

After the Beckles ruling, Sessions issued a memorandum to prosecutors about how to charge and recommend sentences for federal defendants. The memorandum urges prosecutors to charge based on the “most serious, readily provable” offense. It also says that “recommending a sentence within the advisory guideline range will be appropriate.” Judge William Pryor on the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (who President Trump considered nominating to the Supreme Court) defended the policy in the memo, stating that “it at least reduces the potential for disparities.” (Judge Pryor also sits on the U.S. Sentencing Commission and wrote the sole court of appeals opinion that held the guidelines were not amenable to vagueness challenges.)

It’s true that, since Booker, courts have not been required to sentence defendants within the ranges specified in the guidelines. But federal courts continue to rely on the guidelines when imposing sentences. And the guidelines will take on additional force if prosecutors uniformly recommend their application, as Attorney General Sessions has asked them to do.

This piece is cross-posted at Take CareI was co-counsel on an amicus brief in Beckles. The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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