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Oregon Federal Court: 8th and 14th Amendments Mandate Miller Hearing

An Oregon federal court held that a sentence that prohibits a juvenile offender’s possible release until he is 88 years old violates the Eighth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause because it denies a “meaningful opportunity” for release.

The Eighth Amendment requires a state to hold a hearing for a juvenile serving a life sentence at which the person’s youth at the time of the offense must be treated as a mitigating factor and his rehabilitation considered in light of the transient immaturity and impulsivity at the time of the offense. The hearing must be held early enough in a person’s lifetime that it affords the juvenile a chance for a meaningful life outside of prison, not geriatric release. (See: Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012); and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S._, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). This hearing is commonly known as a “Miller hearing.”

When Oregon prisoner Sterling Ray Cunio was 16 years old, he and another teenager committed a double homicide. Cunio was convicted of two counts of aggravated murder, two counts of kidnapping and two counts of robbery. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences and a consecutive 280-month determinate prison term on the non-homicide offenses.

Under Oregon law, Cunio will not begin serving the 280-month consecutive non­homicide sentence unless and until the Oregon Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision (Board) orders his release from the indeterminate life sentences to the determinate consecutive sentences.

In October 2012, the Board imposed a 576-month-to-life prison term and an April 2042 release date on the indeterminate life sentences. Assuming the Board does not postpone that April 2042 release date, Cunio will begin serving the consecutive 280-month determinate sentence at that time. Thus, the earliest he could be released from confinement is April 2065, when he would be 88.

Cunio brought federal suit against the Oregon governor, board chairman and director of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. He alleged that his de facto life sentence without a meaningful opportunity for release deprives him of due process of law and constitutes cruel and punishment. He requested that the Court order defendants to immediately provide “a hearing at which he has a meaningful opportunity to obtain release and to provide such a hearing every two years thereafter if defendants do not release” him.

In granting Cunio’s motion for summary judgment, the court first observed that the 2019 Oregon Legislature changed Oregon’s sentencing scheme for children tried as adults by enacting Senate Bill 1008. Among other things, that bill requires a release hearing for every juvenile who has served 15 years in prison. However, that legislation applies only to sentences imposed on or after January 1, 2020, so it does not apply to Cunio or any of the estimated 187 other Oregon youth who remain in adult prison.

The Court noted that the Board chair and ODOC director testified in favor of SB 1008’s passage. During their legislative testimony, both defendants reported that they were testifying at the direction of their boss, the governor.

“Nonetheless, Defendants in this litigation claim that Oregon’s sentencing scheme — the very scheme that they testified should be changed moving forward — suffers from no constitutional infirmities as applied to Mr. Cunio,” the court noted. “Yet the central truth driving Miller and SB 1008 is that people convicted of crimes as children, even murder, are very likely to be rehabilitated and are entitled to a hearing where a trier of fact determines whether to release them from prison.”

After analyzing the applicable Supreme Court precedents, the court held that “Miller applied to a state with a discretionary sentencing scheme.” Citing Moore v. Biter, 725 F3d 1184, 1191 (9th Cir. 2013), the Court also concluded that Eighth Amendment protections extend to “an aggregate term-of-years sentence that results in a de facto life without parole for a juvenile.”

Given that Cunio cannot be released until he is 88, the Court granted him summary judgment on his first claim, concluding that “Oregon’s bifurcated sentencing scheme denies Plaintiff a meaningful opportunity for release.”

Related legal case

Cunio v. Brown