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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Finds Miller v. Alabama Not Retroactive

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the United States Supreme Court's ban on mandatory juvenile life without parole (LWOP) sentences does not apply retroactively.

In 1999, seventeen year old Ian Cunningham shot and killed Daniel Delarge Jr., during a robbery he committed with two accomplices. Cunningham was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in 2002.

Cunningham's direct appeal was affirmed and he filed a timely post-conviction relief action. Relying on Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 125 S.Ct. 1183 (2005) — which imposed a categorical ban upon juvenile death sentences — Cunningham argued that his LWOP sentence violated the Eighth Amendment.

The post-conviction court denied the petition without holding an evidentiary hearing. The Superior Court affirmed, holding that Roper had no bearing on life sentences. Cunningham appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the case was held in abeyance pending the Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Batts, 79 MAP 2009, a direct appeal challenging the imposition of mandatory juvenile LWOP sentences.

While the appeal was pending, on June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court issued Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S., 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), holding that "the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders." Based in part upon Roper's reasoning, Miller rendered Pennsylvania's juvenile LWOP sentences unconstitutional.

Noting that like Batts and Cunningham, Miller was actually two consolidated cases — one direct appeal and one post-conviction — challenging mandatory juvenile LWOP sentences, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that Miller reversed both cases. Nevertheless, the Court declared that "the Miller majority did not specifically address the question of whether its holding applies to judgments of sentence for prisoners . . . which already were final as of the time of the Miller decision."

The Court first rejected Cunningham's argument "that the Miller Court's reversal of the state appellate court decision affirming the denial of post-conviction relief . . . compels the conclusion that Miller is retroactive," even though the State conceded retroactivity on remand.

The Court noted that Cunningham offered several cases concluding that Miller applies retroactively. See e.g., State v. Ragland, 836 NW2d 107 (Iowa 2013); Jones v. State, So3d , 2013 WL 3756564 (Miss. Jul. 18, 2013); People v. Williams, 982 NE2d 181 (Ill App Ct. 2012); and People v. Morfin, 981 NE2d 1010 (Ill App Ct. 2012). Applying Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060 (1989), however, the Court concluded that Miller does not apply retroactively.

"We will say that, given the high importance attached by the Miller majority to the new rule which it discerned, it seems possible that some Justices of the United States Supreme Court may find the rule to be of the watershed variety," the Court acknowledged. "We doubt, however, that a majority of the Justices would broaden the exception beyond the exceedingly narrow (or, essentially, class-of-one) parameters reflected in the line of decisions referenced by the Commonwealth."

"Applying settled principles of appellate review," the Court held that "nothing in Appellant's arguments persuades us that Miller's proscription of the imposition of mandatory life-without-parole sentences upon offenders under the age of eighteen at the time their crimes were committed must be extended to those whose judgments of sentence were final as of the time of Miller's announcement." See: Commonwealth v. Cunningham,    PaA.2d (2013).

Pennsylvania joined Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming in holding or arguing that Miller should not be given retroactive effect.

The United States Supreme Court agreed to decide the issue of Miller retroactivity in the case of 69-year old Louisiana prisoner Henry Montgomery. He was 17 years old when he shot a sheriff's deputy just nine days before John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Oral arguments were held on October 13, 2015, and a decision is expected before the end of the Court's current Term in June 2016. See: Montgomery v. Louisiana, Supreme Court No. 14-280.

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Related legal case

Montgomery v. Louisiana