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Louisiana Supreme Court Invalidates Juvenile's 99-Year Sentence under Graham v. Florida and Orders Parole Eligibility

by Lonnie Burton

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, that life sentences without parole for non-homicide juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment. On October 19, 2016, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that, under Graham, a then-juvenile's 99-year sentence for armed robbery, which provided no chance for parole, was equivalent to a life sentence, and therefore illegal.

In 1998, at the age of 17, Alden Morgan was convicted after a jury trial of armed robbery and sentenced to 99 years of "hard labor, without the benefit of parole." In 2014, Morgan filed a pro se "motion to correct an illegal sentence" in light of the recent Eighth Amendment cases pertaining to the sentencing of juveniles. After a district court and appeals court denied him relief, the Louisiana Supreme Court granted review, appointed counsel for Morgan, and ordered additional briefing.

In reversing the lower courts and granting Morgan relief, the state's high court focused on to what extent Morgan's sentence exceeds his life expectancy. Noting Graham's mandate that a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense cannot be incarcerated for the duration of his life "without a meaningful opportunity for release," the court found Morgan's sentence illegal because it denied him any chance to demonstrate that "he is fit to rejoin society." Morgan's 99-year sentence without a chance for parole exceeded his life expectancy and was thus illegal under Graham, the court concluded.

The court finally emphasized that it was not ordering or guaranteeing Morgan's release. "We are imposing a sentence that provides him with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of his life," the court wrote. "The determination of whether (Morgan) may be released on parole falls within the exclusive power of the Board of Parole." See: State ex rel. Alden Morgan v. State of Louisiana, No. 2015-KH-0100 (S. Ct. LA), October 19, 2016.

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Related legal case

State ex rel. Alden Morgan v. State of Louisiana