Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. __, which held a mandatory LWOP sentence for a juvenile convicted of murder is cruel and unusual punishment, adopted a new substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review. In 1963 Montgomery, then 17 years old, killed a deputy sheriff. Initially sentenced to death, his conviction was overturned. He was retried, convicted, and sentenced LWOP. The sentence was automatic based on the jury’s verdict of “guilty without capital punishment.” After the Court in Miller held that mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile homicide defendants is cruel and unusual punishment, defendant sought collateral review of his sentence, claiming it was illegal. The trial court denied his petition, finding Miller not retroactive on collateral review. The Louisiana Supreme Court denied his writ petition. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. Held: Reversed. The Eighth Amendment protects defendants against disproportionate punishment. In Miller the Court held certain punishments disproportionate when applied to juveniles, recognizing that “the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications” for imposing an LWOP sentence. Miller requires a trial court to consider an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics before imposing an LWOP sentence. Because Miller held that an LWOP sentence imposed on a juvenile is excessive for all but the very rare offender, it rendered mandatory LWOP an unconstitutional penalty for “a class of defendants because of their status.” It therefore announced a substantive rule of constitutional law, which “forbids criminal punishment of certain primary conduct or prohibits a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense.” It is retroactive because there is a risk that a juvenile offender may otherwise face a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him.
The United States Supreme Court has jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana erred in refusing to give retroactive effect to the decision in Miller. Generally, a state is under no obligation to give retroactive effect to a new rule of constitutional law in its own collateral proceedings, as these proceedings are created by state law and it is for the states to define applicable principles of retroactivity. “If, however, the Constitution establishes a rule and requires that the rule have retroactive application, then a state court’s refusal to give the rule retroactive effect is reviewable by [the U.S. Supreme Court].” Under Teague v. Lane (1989) 489 U.S. 288, there is a general retroactivity bar to applying a new constitutional rule of criminal law to convictions that were final when the rule was announced. There are two exceptions: courts must give retroactive effect to new substantive rules of constitutional law and new “watershed rules of criminal procedure implicating fundamental fairness and accuracy in criminal proceedings.” Although Teague interpreted a federal statute, the Court here held that “when a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of a case, the Constitution requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule,” regardless of when a conviction became final. This is true because a sentence imposed in violation of a substantive rule of law is contrary to law and therefore void.
Giving Miller retroactive effect does not require states to relitigate sentences in every case in which a juvenile offender received an LWOP sentence. “A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.” This ensures that a juvenile offender whose crime reflected only transient immaturity and who has since matured and been rehabilitated will not be forced to serve a sentence that violates the Eighth Amendment.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/14-280_diff_ifkn.pdf