Criminal Law - Juvenile Life without Parole Sentences - Eleventh Circuit Holds That Miller Is Not Retroactive

Harvard Law Review, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Criminal Law - Juvenile Life without Parole Sentences - Eleventh Circuit Holds That Miller Is Not Retroactive


CRIMINAL LAW--JUVENILE LIFE WITH OUT PAROLE SENTENCES--ELEVENTH CIRCUIT HOLDS THAT MILLER IS NOT RETROACTIVE.--In re Morgan, 713 F.3d 1365 (11th Cir.), reh'g en banc denied, 717 F.3d 1186 (11th Cir. 2013).

The Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment juvenile jurisprudence has evolved rapidly over the past decade. In 2005, the Court's landmark decision in Roper v. Simmons (1) abolished the juvenile death penalty. Soon after, in Graham v. Florida, (2) the Court held that sentencing juveniles who had committed nonhomicide crimes to life without parole (LWOP) was "cruel and unusual" and thus prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The Court continued this remarkable expansion of juvenile rights in Miller v. Alabama, (3 holding that mandatory LWOP for juveniles convicted of murder also violates the Eighth Amendment. This trilogy of cases has left the lower courts scrambling to resolve many lingering questions--particularly with respect to the practical and temporal limits of the Court's Miller decision. (4) Recently, in In re Morgan, (5) the Eleventh Circuit held that Miller's elimination of mandatory juvenile LWOP was a procedural, rather than substantive, rule that therefore could not apply retroactively. While this decision was doctrinally sound, the practical result is at odds with the Supreme Court's clear trajectory toward greater protection and greater leniency for minors in the criminal context.

In August of 1991, Michael Morgan--who was seventeen years old--and his friend Patrick Howell set out to rob a Fort Lauderdale drug dealer named Alfonso Tillman. (6) As a cover for the robbery, Howell had arranged to purchase one kilogram of cocaine from Tillman. (7) After Tillman arrived, the group took a drive in Howell's rental car with Morgan seated in the rear behind Tillman. (8) During the drive, Morgan twice shot Tillman in the back of the head, and together with Howell pushed his body out of the car and left with Tillman's belongings. (9) Two years later, in 1993, Morgan was convicted of various racketeering offenses based in part on the Tillman murder. (10) Because Morgan was a juvenile at the time of the offenses, the district court sentenced him to life without parole as required by the then-mandatory sentencing guidelines. (11) The Eleventh Circuit later affirmed his conviction on direct appeal. (12)

Since 2004, Morgan has filed three motions to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence, and all three motions have been dismissed. (13) Most recently, he sought an order from the Eleventh Circuit authorizing the district court to consider a fourth motion to vacate his sentence, claiming that he was entitled to relief under Miller because he was sentenced to mandatory LWOP for the commission of a homicide as a juvenile. (14) To grant this order, the court had to find that Morgan's application made a prima facie showing of either newly discovered, and convincing, exculpatory evidence or "a new rule of constitutional law, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court." (15) Morgan argued that Miller announced a new retroactive rule because--like Graham, which the Eleventh Circuit had held to apply retroactively (16)--its holding "addressed a specific type of sentence for an identifiable class of defendants." (17)

The Eleventh Circuit denied the order. Writing for the panel, Judge Pryor (18) held that while both Miller and Graham announced new constitutional rules, Miller was distinguishable as a procedural rather than substantive rule and thus would not extend retroactively. Under Teague v. Lane, (19) a rule is new, and therefore presumptively nonretroactive, (20) if it "was not dictated by precedent existing at the time the defendant's conviction became final." (21) Because of Miller's unprecedented application of the Eighth Amendment, the court concluded that the case established a new rule of constitutional law. (22) However, Morgan argued that Miller fell into one of the exceptions to Teague nonretroactivity--that it announced a new substantive rather than procedural rule. …

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