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Justices OK Consecutive Life Terms For Juveniles

Friday, March 9, 2018  
Posted by: Laura Fenstermaker
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From Minnesota Lawyer

Brian Lee Flowers was 16 years old in 2009 when he was convicted of two counts of premeditated murder and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without parole.

That was what the state wanted for the gruesome murders of a mother, Katricia Daniels, and her 10-year-old son, Robert Shepard, and that was what the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld on Feb. 28 in Flowers v. State.

The court declined to apply recent case law limiting juvenile life sentences to cases like Flowers involving consecutive sentences and multiple victims.

Starting in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court issued Miller v. Alabama, the issue of juvenile sentencing became more complicated. Miller said that mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual punishment. In 2016 the Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, which allowed Flowers to seek retroactive application of Miller.

The Minnesota Supreme Court followed with  Jackson v. State in 2016 which said that the trial court erred in sentencing the defendant to life without the possibility of release without considering whether Jackson’s crimes reflected irreparable corruption or permanent incorrigibility. The trial court could not make such a finding because the crime was too far in the past. Jackson was sentenced to life with possible release after 30 years.

For Flowers, the line of cases resulted in post-conviction relief from the trial court ordering that the sentences be served concurrently with the possibility of release after 30 years. The state appealed. On Feb. 28, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed Flowers v. State, saying Miller and Jackson did not limit consecutive life sentences with the possibility of release for a juvenile offender who is convicted of multiple murders with multiple victims.

The opinion was unanimous, with Justice Margaret Chutich concurring. The court accepted the state’s argument that the court was not constrained by Miller and Jackson from imposing consecutive sentences.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said he supports Miller and the other cases but that they do not prohibit consecutive sentences. The judge should be able to impose a sentence that is commensurate with the seriousness of the crime, including the number of victims, Freeman said. In appropriate cases, Freeman said, the county will continue to seek sentences of 30 years with parole.  “These are the most horrible of cases and the defendant is not entitled to a free murder,” he said.

Multiple victims

As Justice Anne McKeig discussed in the Flowers opinion, the line of cases discussing juvenile sentences relied on developments in psychology and brain science demonstrating fundamental differences between juvenile and adults minds. That reduced a child’s ‘moral culpability’ and enhanced the possibility the juvenile would change with growth.

“Ultimately, the Miller Court adopted the following rule: before a juvenile is sentenced to [life without possibility of release] the sentence must take into account the differences between children and adults, distinguishing between ‘the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,” McKeig wrote.

These developments in the law did not help Flowers. The U.S. Supreme Court has not extended Miller/Montgomery beyond a life without parole case for first-degree murder involving a single victim. And in State v. Ali (Ali II) in 2017 (cert denied Jan. 8, 2018), the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to extend Miller/Montgomery protections to multiple consecutive sentences of life with possibility of release after 30 years. It again declined to do so in Flowers.

All available facts

The court then turned to Jackson, which required the court to find that a juvenile was irreparably corrupt before imposing a life sentence without possibility of release. The Jackson court said it could not make that determination because so much time had passed that a Miller hearing would be unavailing.

But that determination did not constrain other courts because a Miller hearing serves a unique purpose that is different from the process of collecting information to support consecutive sentences, the court said.

“In determining whether to impose permissive consecutive sentences, a sentencing court considers whether, when compared to past sentences imposed on other offenders for similar crimes, consecutive sentences are commensurate with the defendant’s culpability and criminality. [Cite omitted]. This inquiry may involve considering an array of factors relative to the offender and the offense, such as the nature of the crime and the defendant’s unique circumstances at the time, generally subject to the discretion of the district court,” the court said.

Although some of the facts considered in the different sentencing procedures may overlap, the two inquiries are fundamentally different, the court continued.

“Nothing we said in Jackson regarding the Miller inquiry prevents a court, at the time of sentencing, from exercising its discretion or considering all available facts, including aggravating and mitigating circumstances, relevant to a juvenile offender’s culpability and criminality,” the court concluded.

Flowers’ attorney, Perry Moriearty of the Child Advocacy and Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Minnesota, said the decision was disappointing but that the lawyers are prepared to move forward, although the exact steps have not been determined.

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