Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

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E.g., 09/21/2021
E.g., 09/21/2021

In the case of a defendant who committed a homicide when he or she was under 18, Miller and Montgomery do not require the sentencer to make a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing the defendant to life without parole. In such a case, a discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient.

The Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an “incorporated” protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. The trial court sentenced him to one year of home detention and five years of probation, which included a court-supervised addiction-treatment program. The sentence also required Timbs to pay fees and costs totaling $1,203. At the time of Timbs’s arrest, the police seized his vehicle, a Land Rover SUV Timbs had purchased for about $42,000. Timbs paid for the vehicle with money he received from an insurance policy when his father died. The State engaged a law firm to bring a civil suit for forfeiture of the Land Rover, charging that the vehicle had been used to transport heroin. After Timbs’s guilty plea in the criminal case, the trial court held a hearing on the forfeiture. Although finding that Timbs’s vehicle had been used to facilitate violation of a criminal statute, the court denied the requested forfeiture, observing that Timbs had recently purchased the vehicle for $42,000, more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction. Forfeiture of the Land Rover, the court determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense, hence unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed that determination, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed. The state Supreme Court did not decide whether the forfeiture would be excessive. Instead, it held that the Excessive Fines Clause constrains only federal action and is inapplicable to state impositions. The US Supreme Court granted certiorari. The question presented was: Is the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause an “incorporated” protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause? The Court answered in the affirmative, stating:

Like the Eighth Amendment’s proscriptions of “cruel and unusual punishment” and “[e]xcessive bail,” the protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority. This safeguard, we hold, is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” with “dee[p] root[s] in [our] history and tradition.” McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 767 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis deleted). The Excessive Fines Clause is therefore incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court went on to reject the State of Indiana’s argument that the Excessive Fines Clause does not apply to its use of civil in rem forfeitures.

In a per curiam decision, the Court held that the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling, holding that Virginia’s “geriatric release” provision satisfies Graham v. Florida was not an objectively unreasonable application of Graham. In 1999, the defendant, who was 16 years old at the time, raped a 62-year-old woman. In 2003, a state court sentenced him to life in prison. At the time, Virginia had abolished traditional parole. However it had a geriatric release parole program which allowed older inmates to receive conditional release under some circumstances. Specifically, the statute provided: “Any person serving a sentence imposed upon a conviction for a felony offense . . . (i) who has reached the age of sixty-five or older and who has served at least five years of the sentence imposed or (ii) who has reached the age of sixty or older and who has served at least ten years of the sentence imposed may petition the Parole Board for conditional release.” Seven years after the defendant was sentenced, the Court decided Graham, holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicide offenses from being sentenced to life without parole. Graham held that while a “State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime,” it must give defendants “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” The Graham Court left it to the States, “in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance” with the Graham rule. The defendant then sought to vacate his sentence in light of Graham. The Virginia courts rejected this motion, holding that Virginia’s geriatric release statute satisfied Graham’s requirement of parole for juvenile offenders. The defendant then brought a federal habeas action. The federal district court held that “there is no possibility that fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court’s decision conflicts wit[h] the dictates of Graham.” The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, noting in part:

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit erred by failing to accord the state court’s decision the deference owed under AEDPA. Graham did not decide that a geriatric release program like Virginia’s failed to satisfy the Eighth Amendment because that question was not presented. And it was not objectively unreasonable for the state court to conclude that, because the geriatric release program employed normal parole factors, it satisfied Graham’s requirement that juveniles convicted of a nonhomicide crime have a meaningful opportunity to receive parole.

Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (June 25, 2012)

The Court held that the 8th Amendment prohibits a sentencing scheme that requires life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (May. 17, 2010)

The Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide crime. For a more detailed discussion of this case, click here

The court per curiam affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals, which had held that his sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole for his conviction of felony murder when he was 16 years old was not grossly disproportionate to his crime under the both the Eighth Amendment and the state constitution.  The Court of Appeals also had rejected the defendant’s argument that because G.S. 15A-1340.19B (the post-Miller first-degree murder sentencing scheme for juveniles) did not exist at the time he committed his crime, his sentence under that statute violated the prohibition against ex post facto laws.

The Supreme Court further concluded that the defendant’s Eighth Amendment arguments asserting that he has no meaningful opportunity for parole were not ripe for determination because the time at which he is eligible to apply for parole has not yet arrived.  The court “recognize[d] that the potential for parole constitutionally cannot be illusory for offenders sentenced to life with the possibility of parole and noted that the defendant was not precluded from raising such claims at a later date, in the event they become ripe for resolution.  A summary of the Court of Appeals opinion is available in the compendium here.

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 786 S.E.2d 73 (2016), in this murder case where the defendant, who was a juvenile at the time of the offense, was resentenced to life in prison without parole under the state’s Miller-compliant sentencing scheme (G.S. 15A-1340.19A to -1340.19D), the court modified and affirmed the opinion below and remanded for further proceedings. In the Court of Appeals, the defendant argued that the trial court had, by resentencing him pursuant the new statutes, violated the constitutional prohibition against the enactment of ex post facto laws, that the statutory provisions subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment and deprived him of his rights to a trial by jury and to not be deprived of liberty without due process of law, and that the trial court failed to make adequate findings of fact to support its decision to impose a sentence of life without parole. In a unanimous opinion, the Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the statutes while reversing the trial court’s resentencing order and remanding for further proceedings. The Court of Appeals remanded for the trial court to correct what it characterized as inadequate findings as to the presence or absence of mitigating factors to support its determination. Before the Supreme Court, the defendant argued that the Court of Appeals erred by holding that the statute creates a presumption in favor of life without parole and by rejecting his constitutional challenges to the statutory scheme.

The Supreme Court began its analysis by addressing whether or not G.S. 15A-1340.19C gives rise to a mandatory presumption that a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder on the basis of a theory other than felony murder should be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The court concluded, in part: “the relevant statutory language, when read in context, treats the sentencing decision required by N.C.G.S. § 15A-1340.19C(a) as a choice between two equally appropriate sentencing alternatives and, at an absolute minimum, does not clearly and unambiguously create a presumption in favor of sentencing juvenile defendants convicted of first-degree murder on the basis of a theory other than the felony murder rule to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” Thus, the Court of Appeals erred by construing the statutory language as incorporating such a presumption. The court offered this instruction for trial judges:

On the contrary, trial judges sentencing juveniles convicted of first-degree murder on the basis of a theory other than the felony murder rule should refrain from presuming the appropriateness of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and select between the available sentencing alternatives based solely upon a consideration of “the circumstances of the offense,” “the particular circumstances of the defendant,” and “any mitigating factors,” N.C.G.S. § 15A-1340.19C(a), as they currently do in selecting a specific sentence from the presumptive range in a structured sentencing proceeding, in light of the United States Supreme Court’s statements in Miller and its progeny to the effect that sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole should be reserved for those juvenile defendants whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption rather than transient immaturity.

The court then rejected the defendant’s argument that the statutory scheme was unconstitutionally vague, concluding that the statutes “provide sufficient guidance to allow a sentencing judge to make a proper, non-arbitrary determination of the sentence that should be imposed upon a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder on a basis other than the felony murder rule to satisfy due process requirements.” The court also rejected the defendant’s arbitrariness argument. Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s ex post facto argument, holding that the Court of Appeals correctly determined that the statutory scheme does not allow for imposition of a different or greater punishment than was permitted when the crime was committed. In this respect, it held: because the statutes “make a reduced sentence available to defendant and specify procedures that a sentencing judge is required to use in making the sentencing decision, we believe that defendant’s challenge to the validity of the relevant statutory provisions as an impermissible ex post facto law is without merit.” Justices Beasley and Hudson dissented. 

State v. Perry, 369 N.C. 390 (Dec. 21, 2016)

The State conceded and the court agreed that pursuant to Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012) (holding that imposition of a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole upon a juvenile violates the Eighth Amendment), applies retroactively to cases that became final before Miller was decided.

State v. Young, 369 N.C. 118 (Dec. 21, 2016)

The State conceded and the court agreed that pursuant to Montgomery, Miller applies retroactively. The court further rejected the State’s argument that the defendant’s sentence was not in violation of Miller because it allowed for a meaningful opportunity for the defendant to obtain release. The State argued that the defendant had an opportunity for release under G.S. 15A-1380.5, a repealed statue which applied to the defendant’s case. Recognizing that the statute might increase the chance for a sentence to be altered or commuted, the court rejected the argument that the defendant’s sentence did not violate Miller. It noted that under the statute although a defendant is entitled to review of the sentence by the trial court, the statute guarantees no hearing, no notice, and no procedural rights. Furthermore, it provides minimal guidance as to what type of circumstances would support alteration or commutation, it requires only that the judge “consider the trial record,” and notes that the judge “may” review other information “in his or her discretion.” Ultimately the decision of what to recommend is in the judge’s discretion and the only effect of the judge’s recommendation is that the Governor or a designated executive agency must “consider” that recommendation. The court stated:

Because of these provisions, the possibility of alteration or commutation pursuant to section 15A-1380.5 is deeply uncertain and is rooted in essentially unguided discretion. Accordingly, this section does not reduce to any meaningful degree the severity of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Moreover, section 15A-1380.5 does not address the central concern of Miller—that a sentencing court cannot treat minors like adults when imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. (citations omitted).

The court noted that the Supreme Court’s “foundational concern” in Miller was “that at some point during the minor offender’s term of imprisonment, a reviewing body will consider the possibility that he or she has matured.” It concluded:

Nothing in section 15A-1380.5 requires consideration of this factor. In fact, after the judge’s recommendation is submitted to “[t]he Governor or an executive agency designated under this section,” N.C.G.S. § 15A-1380.5(e), nothing in section 15A-1380.5 gives any guidance to the final decision maker because this framework simply was not developed to address the concerns the Supreme Court raised in Miller and Montgomery.

State v. Seam, 369 N.C. 418 (Dec. 21, 2016)

In a per curiam opinion, and for the reasons stated in Young (summarized immediately above), the court affirmed the trial court and remanded for resentencing.

In 2004, the defendant was convicted of criminal offenses related to two convenience store robberies and a separate kidnapping and murder. All three incidents occurred in 2002, when the defendant was 16 years old. The defendant pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery, and was subsequently convicted at trial of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule, first degree kidnapping, and attempted robbery for the third incident. Sentencing for all the offenses occurred at a single hearing and the defendant was sentenced to a total of five consecutive active terms, including a term of life without parole for the murder. The defendant appealed his convictions, asserting errors related to the use of aggravating factors and double jeopardy. The appellate courts’ resolution of those claims in State v. Oglesby, 174 N.C. App. 658, (2005), aff’d in part, vacated in part, 361 N.C. 550 (2007) and State v. Oglesby, 186 N.C. App. 681 (2007) (unpublished), disc. review denied, 362 N.C. 478 (2008), ultimately resulted in a remand to the trial court to arrest judgment on the attempted robbery conviction, but otherwise left the sentences undisturbed. 

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), the defendant filed an MAR challenging his sentence of life without parole. The state initially requested a stay, arguing that it had not yet been decided whether Miller applied retroactively. Once that issue was resolved by Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016), the state agreed that the defendant was entitled to a resentencing hearing. The trial court granted the defendant’s MAR and ordered a new sentencing hearing for the purpose of resentencing the defendant on the murder and arresting judgment on either the kidnapping or attempted robbery conviction in accordance with the prior appellate decisions.

Since the defendant’s first-degree murder conviction was based on felony murder, there was no dispute that the defendant should be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole for that offense, pursuant to G.S. 15A-1340.19B(a). The contested issue at the hearing was whether that life sentence should also be ordered to run concurrently with the kidnapping sentence. After hearing arguments from the state and defense, the trial court ordered that the sentences remain consecutive. The defendant’s consecutive sentences for the two armed robbery convictions were not altered by the order.

The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by ordering consecutive sentences on the murder and kidnapping convictions, and also by failing to consider the two robbery convictions at the resentencing. The appellate court rejected both arguments. After reviewing the Miller decision and the responsive statutory changes, the court explained that the sentencing judge retains the discretion to order either consecutive or concurrent sentences pursuant G.S. 15A-1354, and the record in this case demonstrated that the judge “duly exercised that discretion by considering all facts presented at the resentencing hearing in reaching its decision.” Additionally, the appellate court held that the defendant failed to preserve the issue of whether the armed robbery sentences should have been included in the resentencing, based on defense counsel’s statements at the resentencing hearing conceding that they were not, as well as the defendant’s failure to include that issue in the notice of appeal. However, even if the issue had been preserved, the court held that the robbery sentences were properly excluded from the resentencing because they arose from a separate transaction. When a juvenile offender is awarded a resentencing under Miller, “the juvenile is only entitled to be resentenced on his murder conviction (i.e., the conviction for which he received mandatory LWOP), and is not entitled to be resentenced for unrelated convictions which arose out of a different transaction.”

The defendant next argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel, based on his attorney’s acknowledgement at the hearing that the two armed robbery convictions were unrelated and not before the court for resentencing. The appellate court held that the defendant’s claim failed under both prongs of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). First, defense counsel’s performance was not deficient because the argument that he purportedly should have raised (that the robbery convictions could also be included in the resentencing) “was, at best, resting on unsettled law, and at worst, meritless” as demonstrated by the appellate court’s rejection of the argument above. Second, the defendant likewise failed to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by this alleged failure. Given that the trial court declined to consolidate the two sentences that were before it, there was only a “highly remote possibility” that the court would have consolidated the other sentences, even if that option had been presented.

Finally, the defendant argued that his multiple consecutive sentences constituted a de facto sentence of life without parole in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Noting that there have been conflicting decisions on that issue at the Court of Appeals, and that the North Carolina Supreme Court recently issued a stay in State v. Kelliher, 854 S.E.2d 586 (N.C. 2021) pending discretionary review, the appellate court declined to rule on that argument at this time; instead, the court dismissed the claim without prejudice, allowing it to be raised on a subsequent MAR after Kelliher is decided, if warranted.

Judge Arrowood concurred with the majority in part, but dissented as to ineffective assistance of counsel and would have held that the trial court did have the authority to resentence on the robberies because the sentences were all imposed at the same time, and therefore trial counsel was deficient in failing to advance that argument at the hearing and there was a reasonable probability that the defendant suffered prejudice as a result.

The defendant was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of life without parole for two murders he committed when he was 17 years old. The defendant filed an MAR requesting resentencing on the grounds that sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional, pursuant to Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) and G.S. 15A-1340.19A, et seq. The MAR was granted and the defendant was resentenced to two consecutive life sentences with parole.

On appeal, the defendant argued that his new sentence was unconstitutional since it amounted to a de facto sentence of life without parole. The majority opinion acknowledged that an identical sentence was held unconstitutional in State v. Kelliher, __ N.C. App. __, 849 S.E.2d 333 (2020), temp. stay allowed, __ N.C. __, 848 S.E.2d 493 (2020), but found that it was not binding precedent because the state Supreme Court stayed the decision and granted discretionary review. Turning to the case at hand, the appellate court held that “the sentences imposed by the trial court, though significant, are not unconstitutional.” Assuming that a de facto life sentence without parole would be unconstitutional, that argument did not apply to this defendant since he will be eligible for parole in 50 years. However, the appellate court did find that the trial court erred at the resentencing hearing by failing to consider whether concurrent sentences might be appropriate, due to a mistaken belief that concurrent sentences were not permissible under the statutes. The two sentences of life with parole were therefore affirmed, but the portion of the judgment ordering that the terms be consecutive was vacated and remanded for a new hearing to determine whether the sentences should be consecutive or concurrent.

Chief Judge McGee concurred in part and dissented in part. Judge McGee agreed that the statutes themselves do not prohibit consecutive sentences and also agreed that the defendant must be resentenced, but would have held that two consecutive sentences of life with parole do constitute a de facto sentence of life without parole, and are therefore unconstitutional as held in Kelliher.

The defendant pleaded guilty to raping and murdering his aunt, and received a sentence of 240-348 months for the rape followed by a consecutive sentence of life with parole for the murder. On appeal, the defendant argued that: (i) a consecutive sentence of life with parole was not permitted under G.S. 15A-1340.19A, et seq. (the “Miller-fix statutes”); (ii) his sentence was unconstitutional since it amounted to a de facto sentence of life without parole; and (iii) the trial court erred in ordering lifetime satellite-based monitoring (SBM) without holding a hearing. 

The majority first held that consecutive sentences are permissible under the statutes, and trial courts have discretion to decide whether to order consecutive or concurrent sentences, so the defendant’s first argument was overruled. Next, the court held that the consecutive sentence imposed in this case was not unconstitutional. The majority acknowledged that an identical sentence was held unconstitutional in State v. Kelliher, __ N.C. App. __, 849 S.E.2d 333 (2020), temp. stay allowed, __ N.C. __, 848 S.E.2d 493 (2020), but found that it was not binding precedent because the state Supreme Court stayed the decision and granted discretionary review. Assuming that a de facto life sentence without parole would be unconstitutional, that argument did not apply to this defendant since he will be eligible for parole at age 60, after serving 45 years. However, the trial court did err at the sentencing hearing by failing to conduct a hearing before ordering the defendant to enroll in lifetime SBM, so that order was vacated and remanded with instructions to conduct a hearing.

Chief Judge McGee concurred in part and dissented in part. Judge McGee agreed that the statutes themselves do not prohibit consecutive sentences and also agreed that the order for lifetime SBM should be vacated, but would have held that the consecutive sentence of life with parole constituted a de facto sentence of life without parole, and was therefore unconstitutional as held in Kelliher.

The defendant was a participant in a double murder at the age of 17 and sentenced to consecutive terms of life without parole (“LWOP”) in Cumberland County in 2001. He moved for resentencing pursuant to Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (holding that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders violates the 8th Amendment) and its progeny. The trial court determined at resentencing that the defendant did not present the rare case of an “irredeemable” or” incorrigible” juvenile, and therefore did not qualify for an LWOP sentence. The defendant’s evidence at resentencing showed an abusive childhood, early substance abuse, substantial educational and self-improvement while in prison. He also presented expert mental health testimony indicating he was at low-risk to reoffend and evidence of a near-perfect disciplinary record while in prison (among other evidence). The trial court resentenced the defendant to two consecutive terms of life with parole, which meant that the defendant would be parole-eligible after a term of at least 50 years. The defendant appealed, arguing that the sentence amounted to a de facto life sentence in violation of state and federal constitutional protections. The Court of Appeals unanimously agreed.

(1) The defendant’s challenge to his sentence was preserved. He raised Miller, the 8th Amendment, and comparable provisions of the state constitution in his MAR seeking resentencing, and specifically argued for concurrent life with parole sentences. The specific grounds of his objections to the sentence were thus clear from context and at least amounted to “an implied argument” that his sentence violated constitutional protections. Even if the argument was not preserved, the defendant asked the court to invoke Rule 2 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure to consider the argument, and the court found that invocation of the rule was appropriate here to review the constitutional issue.

(2) Conducting an extensive review of the Miller line of cases, the court made three rulings of first impression in the state. (2a) A “clear majority” of jurisdictions have held that a de facto life sentences are reviewable under Miller, and North Carolina joined that majority. To allow Miller protections to be circumvented by labeling a sentence a term of years as opposed to life without parole when the effect of the sentence would preclude a meaningful opportunity for release would render the constitutional protections hollow. “Roper, Graham, and Miller are all concerned with ‘imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.’ A de jure LWOP sentence is certainly as ‘harsh’ as its functional equivalent.” Kelliher Slip op. at 30. (2b) Concurrent sentences that aggregate to create a de facto life sentence for juveniles not otherwise eligible for LWOP violate the constitutional protections for the punishment of juveniles. The court recognized that courts around the country are “sharply divided” on this point. A majority of jurisdictions have determined that concurrent sentences may lead to an impermissible de facto life sentence, and North Carolina again joined that majority. “The applicability and scope of protection found in the Eighth Amendment . . . [turn] on the identity of the defendant, not on the crimes perpetrated.” Id. at 35. The court distinguished North Carolina law from that of other jurisdictions holding otherwise. (2c) The defendant’s sentence to consecutive life with parole terms was unconstitutional. The defendant would become eligible for parole at age 67 under his current sentence. This was long enough to constitute a de facto life sentence. In the words of the court: 

To release an individual after their opportunity to directly contribute to society—both through a career and in other respects, like raising a family—does not provide a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate the ‘maturity and rehabilitation’ required to obtain release and reenter society as required by Graham. Id. at 40 (citation omitted) (cleaned up).

The court observed that the defendant would not necessarily be released from prison even after becoming parole eligible. However, to afford the defendant the constitutional protections established by the Miller line of cases, the defendant’s consecutive sentences could not stand. The sentences were therefore vacated, and the trial court was ordered to impose concurrent life with parole sentences on remand.

The defendant, 17 years old at the time of his crime, was charged with first-degree murder based on his role in a murder committed by one of his acquaintances during a robbery. Trial testimony indicated that the defendant orchestrated the killing. He was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder. At sentencing, the trial judge reviewed mitigating circumstances as required by G.S. 15A-1340.19B(c) to decide whether to impose a sentence of life without parole or life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Among other findings, the trial court found no evidence of particular immaturity, no evidence of mental illness, and “no evidence . . . that the defendant would benefit from rehabilitation and confinement other than that of other . . . persons who may be incarcerated for . . . first degree murder.” The trial court concluded that any mitigating factors were “outweighed by other evidence in this case of the offense and the manner in which it was committed” and sentenced the defendant to life without parole. The court of appeals vacated the sentence, concluding that the trial court applied an incorrect legal standard by focusing on the nature of the offense and not whether the defendant was, within the meaning of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), “the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.” The trial court also erred by comparing the young defendant to the broader class of all persons who may be incarcerated for first-degree murder, including adults. The court of appeals remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing consistent with its opinion, emphasizing that the mitigation evidence put on by the defendant (including his youth, his violent home environment, his potential for rehabilitation) “seemingly implicated every factor Miller identified as counseling against sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole.” Slip op. at 24 (emphasis in original). A dissenting judge would have affirmed the sentence of life without parole.

State v. Seam, ___ N.C. App. ___, 823 S.E.2d 605 (Dec. 18, 2018) aff’d per curiam, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Feb 28 2020)

The defendant’s sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole for his conviction of felony murder when he was 16 years old is constitutional.

          The defendant asserted that his sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. The court concluded that an as applied challenge is not legally available to the defendant and that he is limited to a review of whether his sentence was grossly disproportionate to his crime. Considering that issue, the court concluded that the defendant sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole was not grossly disproportionate to his crime. Among other things the defendant was an active participant in the murder, did not provide assistance to the victim, and tried to profit from the crime by selling the murder weapon.

          Turning to the defendant’s argument as to Article 1, Section 27 of the state constitution, the court noted that the North Carolina Supreme Court has historically analyzed cruel and unusual punishment claims similarly under both the federal and state constitutions. Having determined that the defendant’s sentence does not violate the Eighth Amendment, the court concluded that it passes muster under the state constitution.

          Finally, the defendant argued that because G.S. 15A-1340.19B did not exist at the time he committed his crime, his sentence violates the prohibition against ex post facto laws. As his lawyer conceded at oral argument, however, a virtually identical contention was rejected by the court in State v. James, 371 N.C. 77 (2018), and that case forecloses his argument on this issue.

In this child sexual assault case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court’s consecutive sentences, totaling a minimum of 138 years, violated his constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The court began by finding that because the defendant failed to object to the sentencing on constitutional grounds in the trial court, he failed to preserve the issue for appellate review. The court went on however to reject the defendant’s argument on the merits. It noted that a punishment may be cruel or unusual if it is not proportionate to the crime for which the defendant has been convicted. Here, the trial court exercised its discretion and consolidated the 70 verdicts into six identical judgments, each of which were sentenced in the presumptive range, and the trial court ordered that these 276-month sentences be served consecutively.

The trial court did not err by imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on the juvenile defendant. In 2001 the defendant was tried capitally and convicted of first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping and burning of personal property. The jury recommended a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, and the trial court entered judgment. The defendant’s direct appeal was unsuccessful. In 2013 the defendant filed an MAR requesting a new sentencing hearing in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller which held that mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders violates the eighth amendment. The trial court granted the defendant’s MAR and ordered a new sentencing hearing. At the end of that hearing the trial court ordered that the defendant’s sentence remain life without parole. The defendant appealed. On appeal the defendant argued that the trial court violated his eighth amendment constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment by imposing a sentence of life without parole and erred by imposing a sentence of life without parole because it failed to make findings on the presence or absence of Miller factors and the findings it did make do not support the conclusion that the sentence was warranted. The court disagreed finding that the trial court complied with the statutory requirements in determining that life imprisonment without parole was warranted. Additionally, the trial court properly made ultimate findings of fact on each of the Miller factors as set forth in section 15A-1340.19B(c) and did not abuse its discretion in weighing those factors and concluding that life imprisonment without parole was appropriate in the defendant’s case.

The defendant’s sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after a term of 25 years does not violate the Eighth Amendment under Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012). As a 15-year-old, the defendant was charged with first-degree murder. He was found guilty under the felony murder rule and under then-applicable law, was sentenced to a mandatory term of life without the possibility of parole. While the defendant’s appeal was pending, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller, holding that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment. The General Assembly then amended the statute to provide that the sentence for a defendant found guilty of first-degree murder solely under the felony murder rule shall be life in prison with the possibility of parole; a defendant sentenced under this provision must serve a minimum of 25 years before becoming eligible for parole. The defendant’s sentence was vacated on appeal and remanded to the trial court for resentencing pursuant to the new statute. The trial court held a resentencing hearing and imposed a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years. The court declined the defendant’s invitation to extend Miller to sentences that include the possibility of parole. It added, however:

Nevertheless, we note there may indeed be a case in which a mandatory sentence of life with parole for a juvenile is disproportionate in light of a particular defendant’s age and immaturity. That case is not now before us. Defendant chooses only to assert that [the statute] fails to provide a trial judge with discretion to consider the mitigating factors of youth and immaturity. He does not show the existence of circumstances indicating the sentence is particularly cruel or unusual as-applied to him.

The court affirmed the sentence, noting that the defendant had failed to meet the burden of the facial constitutional challenge and did not bring an as-applied challenge.

The defendant’s constitutional rights were not violated when the trial court sentenced him on three counts of first-degree sexual offense, where the offenses were committed when the defendant was fifteen years old. The court found that the defendant had not brought the type of categorical challenge at issue in cases like Roper or Graham. Rather, the defendant challenged the proportionality of his sentence given his juvenile status at the time of the offenses. The court concluded that the defendant failed to establish that his sentence of 202-254 months for three counts of sexual offense against a six-year-old child was so grossly disproportionate as to violate the Eighth Amendment.

State v. Thomsen, 242 N.C. App. 475 (Aug. 4, 2015) aff'd on other grounds, 369 N.C. 22 (Aug 19 2016)

The trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s 300-month minimum, 420-month maximum sentence for statutory rape and statutory sex offense violated the Eighth Amendment. The court concluded: “A 300-month sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the two crimes to which Defendant pled guilty. Furthermore, Defendant’s 300-month sentence … is less than or equal to the sentences of many other offenders of the same crime in this jurisdiction.”

he court declined to extend Miller to this felony-murder case, where the defendant turned 18 one month before the crime in question.

In this case, arising from the defendant’s conviction for first-degree murder of UNC student Eve Carson, the court upheld the constitutionality of the State’s “Miller fix” statute and determined that the trial court’s findings supported a sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The defendant—who was 17 years old at the time of the murder—was originally sentenced to life in prison without parole. In his first appeal the court vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing under G.S. 15A-1340.19A et. seq., the new sentencing statute enacted by the N.C. General Assembly in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___, ___, 183 L.Ed. 2d 407, 421-24 (2012). On remand, the trial court held a new sentencing hearing and resentenced the defendant under the new sentencing statute to life imprisonment without parole after making extensive findings of fact as to any potential mitigating factors revealed by the evidence. Among other things, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the Miller fix statute was constitutionally infirm because it “vests the sentencing judge with unbridled discretion providing no standards.” It also rejected the defendant’s arguments that the evidence was insufficient to support the trial court’s findings of fact in connection with the resentencing and that without findings of irretrievable corruption and no possibility of rehabilitation the trial court should not have imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. It concluded:

As noted by Miller, the “harshest penalty will be uncommon[,]” but this case is uncommon. Miller, 567 U.S. at ___, 183 L.E. 2d at 424. The trial court’s findings support its conclusion. The trial court considered the circumstances of the crime and defendant’s active planning and participation in a particularly senseless murder. Despite having a stable, middleclass home, defendant chose to take the life of another for a small amount of money. Defendant was 17 years old, of a typical maturity level for his age, and had no psychiatric disorders or intellectual disabilities that would prevent him from understanding risks and consequences as others his age would. Despite these advantages, defendant also had an extensive juvenile record, and thus had already had the advantage of any rehabilitative programs offered by the juvenile court, to no avail, as his criminal activity had continued to escalate. Defendant was neither abused nor neglected, but rather the evidence indicates for most of his life he had two parents who cared deeply for his well-being in all regards. 

he trial court erred by concluding that a 50-year sentence with the possibility of parole on a defendant who was a juvenile at the time the crimes were committed subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The defendant was convicted of second degree burglary (1 count), felonious breaking or entering (3 counts), felonious larceny (four counts), and possession of stolen property (2 counts). Assessing the number of felony convictions, the fact that one was particularly serious, and the fact that the defendant’s conduct involved great financial harm and led to criminal activity on the part of a younger individual, the court concluded that the sentence was not “grossly disproportionate.” 

he trial court erred by concluding that a 50-year sentence with the possibility of parole on a defendant who was a juvenile at the time the crimes were committed subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The defendant was convicted of second degree burglary (1 count), felonious breaking or entering (3 counts), felonious larceny (four counts), and possession of stolen property (2 counts). Assessing the number of felony convictions, the fact that one was particularly serious, and the fact that the defendant’s conduct involved great financial harm and led to criminal activity on the part of a younger individual, the court concluded that the sentence was not “grossly disproportionate.” 

State v. Stubbs, 232 N.C. App. 274 (Feb. 4, 2014) aff'd on other grounds, 368 N.C. 40 (Apr 10 2015)

The court held that the trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole violated of the Eighth Amendment. In 1973, the 17-year-old defendant was charged with first-degree burglary and other offenses. After he turned 18, he defendant pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary and another charge. On the second-degree burglary conviction, he was sentenced to an active term for “his natural life.” In 2011 the defendant filed a MAR challenging his life sentence, asserting, among other things, a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The trial court granted relief and the State appealed. The court began by noting that the defendant had properly asserted a claim in his MAR under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(8) (sentence invalid as a matter of law) and (b)(4) (unconstitutional sentence). On the substance of the Eighth Amendment claim, the court noted that under the statutes in effect at that time, prisoners with life sentences were eligible to have their cases considered for parole after serving 10 years. Although the record was not clear how often the defendant was considered for parole, it was clear that in 2008, after serving over 35 years, he was paroled. After he was convicted in 2010 of driving while impaired, his parole was revoked and his life sentence reinstated. Against this background, the court concluded that the “defendant’s outstanding sentence of life in prison with possibility of parole for second-degree burglary, though severe, is not cruel or unusual in the constitutional sense.” The dissenting judge believed that the court lacked jurisdiction to consider the State’s appeal.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree felony-murder (child abuse as the underlying felony) violated the 8th Amendment.

Under Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), the trial court violated the defendant’s constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by imposing a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole upon him despite the fact that he was under 18 years old at the time of the murder. Because the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder solely on the basis of the felony-murder rule, he must be resentenced to life imprisonment with parole in accordance with G.S. 15A-1340.19B(a).

In an appeal from a conviction obtained in the Eve Carson murder case, the court held that the defendant was entitled to a new sentencing hearing in accordance with G.S. 15A-1476 (recodified as G.S. 15A-1340.19A), the statute enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly to bring the State’s sentencing law into compliance with Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (Eighth Amendment prohibits a sentencing scheme that requires life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders). The State conceded that the statute applied to the defendant, who was seventeen years old at the time of the murder and whose case was pending on direct appeal when the Act became law. 

No violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment occurred when the defendant, who was 16 years old at the time of his arrest, was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole . The court rejected the defendant’s argument that Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010) (the Eighth Amendment does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide crime), warranted a different result; the court distinguished Graham on grounds that the case at hand involved a murder conviction.

The defendant, who was sixteen years old when he committed the sexual offenses at issue, was sentenced to 32 to 40 years imprisonment. The court held that the sentence did not violate the constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

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