by Michael Dohr
Because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, 48 inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole in the Colorado Department of Corrections are now eligible for resentencing hearings. But their new right to a resentencing hearing doesn’t guarantee them a different sentence.
From 1990 to 2006, Colorado imposed a mandatory life sentence without parole on a juvenile convicted of a class 1 felony. In 2012, in the case of Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a juvenile is unconstitutional because it violates the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Since Colorado’s mandatory life sentence without parole for a juvenile was held unconstitutional, you may assume that all of those persons serving that sentence would be entitled to resentencing. But when the U.S. Supreme Court announces a criminal case, it does not automatically mean that each person in the same circumstances as the defendant in the Supreme Court case gets the benefit of the decision. In fact, usually only those defendants whose cases are still on direct appeal from their conviction get the benefit of the decision.
In the criminal justice system, there are two types of appeals: Direct appeals and collateral or post-conviction appeals. A direct appeal occurs when the defendant appeals his or her conviction directly to the next highest court, challenging the grounds of the conviction based on an alleged error that occurred before or during the trial. The process of direct appeal is completed once the Colorado Supreme Court – or the U.S. Supreme court if there’s a federal issue involved – rules on, or refuses to consider, the appeal. After a defendant’s direct appeals are completed, the defendant’s conviction is final.
After the conviction is final, a defendant may file a collateral appeal claiming there is a fundamental issue, such as ineffective assistance of counsel, that was not addressed on direct review. The defendant may also bring a collateral appeal claiming there is newly discovered evidence of the defendant’s innocence that the court should consider.
This distinction between direct appeals and collateral appeals is significant in this case because there are 48 inmates in the Colorado Department of Corrections who are serving mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole and whose direct appeals are completed.
The legal issue that determines whether a defendant whose direct appeal is completed receives the benefit of the Supreme Court’s decision is whether the issue decided in the case is a substantive issue of criminal law or a procedural issue of criminal law. If the issue is substantive, then a defendant who has completed the direct appeal process also gets the benefit of the decision in the case. But if the issue is procedural, it only applies to those defendants whose cases are still on direct appeal. The vast majority of the cases involve procedural issues of criminal law and therefore do not apply to defendants whose direct appeals are completed.
In June of 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court held in People v. Tate that the Miller decision involved a procedural issue, not a substantive one, and, as such, does not apply to a defendant who has completed his or her direct appeal. Colorado’s decision was in the minority of state courts that considered the question. But, it was not the final word on the issue for Colorado defendants because the U.S. Supreme heard a case this term to address the Miller question.
In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller is substantive. The Court found that Miller involved a substantive criminal issue because the decision addressed criminal sentencing. Specifically, the Court found that the Miller decision prohibited a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status. The prohibited category of punishment is a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole, and it is prohibited because of the defendants’ status as juveniles.
So, the 48 inmates in Colorado whose direct appeals are finished are now eligible for resentencing hearings. The Supreme Court acknowledged that it may be a burden on state courts to hold hearings for all of the inmates who are now eligible for resentencing under the Miller decision. The Court suggested that states could choose to parole the inmates rather than hold resentencing hearings.
But it’s important to note that a resentencing hearing for one of these defendants doesn’t automatically result in a different sentence. The operative term in the Miller holding is “mandatory;” mandatory sentences to life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juveniles. At a resentencing hearing, a court could review the evidence and arguments presented at the trial and conclude that the defendant deserves a sentence to life without the possibility of parole. In this situation, the court may affirm the defendant’s original sentence. So, while the Montgomery decision grants the defendants the right to a hearing on their sentences, it does not guarantee them a change in their sentences.