Habeas petitioner is entitled to relief because trial court did not adequately consider the distinctive mitigating circumstances of his youth and background, as required by Miller v. Alabama, when imposing juvenile LWOP sentence. In 1995, when he was 17 years old, Wilson participated in a bank robbery that resulted in the death of a bank employee. Following a jury trial, he was convicted of felony murder and related offenses, and was sentenced to LWOP. The appellate court affirmed his conviction on direct appeal. In 2013, Wilson petitioned for habeas relief, arguing that his sentence violates the Eighth Amendment in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama (2012) 132 S.Ct. 2455. The trial court denied the petition. Wilson next sought habeas relief in the Court of Appeal. Held: Petition granted. In Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment forbids mandatory LWOP sentences for individuals who were juveniles at the time they committed a homicide. The Court outlined a number of individual sentencing factors (the Miller factors) that the sentencing court must consider before imposing an LWOP sentence. Based on the record in this case, the trial court did not presumptively impose Wilson’s LWOP sentence. (See Pen. Code, § 190.5, subd. (b); People v. Gutierrez (2014) 58 Cal.4th 1354.) However, the trial court did not adequately consider the Miller factors. The court rejected the Attorney General’s argument that habeas relief should be denied because Wilson has the possibility of parole under Penal Code section 1170, subdivision (d)(2). Relying in part on Gutierrez, the court concluded that this statute falls short of what Miller requires, even where the trial court did not apply a presumption in favor of LWOP.
The rules announced in Miller apply retroactively to cases that were final prior to the decision. Wilson’s LWOP sentence was imposed and the judgment in his case became final 15 years before Miller was decided. Although new rules are not generally applied retroactively in cases on collateral review, there is an exception when the rule is substantive. (Teague v. Lane (1989) 489 U.S. 288; Schriro v. Summerlin (2004) 542 U.S. 348.) After reviewing decisions from other states and federal courts, the appellate court here concluded that Miller applies retroactively. Miller held that a sentencing court must consider specific, individualized factors before imposing an LWOP sentence and recognized that LWOP sentences should be rare when mitigating evidence is considered. This is a new substantive rule that addresses the limits on the imposition of a juvenile LWOP sentence. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has already applied the rule to a petitioner who was before the Court on collateral review in Miller. Wilson is entitled to the benefit of Miller because of the unfairness that would result if Miller did not apply. [Editor’s Note: A Miller retroactivity issue is currently pending in the California Supreme Court: Does Miller apply retroactively on habeas corpus to a prisoner who was a juvenile at the time of the commitment offense and who is presently serving a sentence that is the functional equivalent of life without the possibility of parole? (In re Alatriste (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 1232, review granted 2/19/2014 (S214652/B248072); In re Bonilla (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 1232, review granted 2/19/2014 (S214960/B248199).)]