Skip to content
Name: People v. Blackwell
Case #: A144424
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 1 DCA
Division: 5
Opinion Date: 09/07/2016

A trial court’s determination that a minor homicide defendant is “irreparably corrupt” and deserving of a life without parole (LWOP) sentence, is not a fact that must be found by a jury. In 2007, six months before his eighteenth birthday, Blackwell attempted a residential robbery and burglary during which a resident was killed. Blackwell was convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances and sentenced to LWOP. In his first appeal, Blackwell’s sentence was reversed for resentencing pursuant to the constitutional standards announced in Miller v. Alabama (2012) 132 S.Ct. 2455 (Eighth Amendment forbids mandatory LWOP for juvenile convicted of murder). On remand Blackwell again received an LWOP sentence. On appeal, he claimed his punishment exceeded the statutory maximum absent a jury finding of “irreparable corruption.” Held: Affirmed. Penal Code sections 190.2 and 190.5, subdivision (b) require a special circumstance finding before a 16 or 17-year-old is eligible for an LWOP term. Thus the “statutory maximum” for Blackwell’s offense for Sixth Amendment purposes was determined once the jury returned its verdict of first degree murder with special circumstances. The issue of who should determine whether a juvenile offender receives an LWOP sentence was not decided in Miller (which held the trial court must consider all relevant evidence bearing on the distinctive attributes of youth when determining an appropriate punishment). The trial court’s consideration of the Miller factors in determining Blackwell’s sentence did not violate the Sixth Amendment or Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000) 530 U.S. 466 [finding of facts needed to impose sentence in excess of statutory maximum must be made by jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt], as these factors merely summarized the absence of youth-based mitigation.

Miller v. Alabama does not impose a categorical Eighth Amendment sentencing limit that bars imposition of an LWOP term on a minor homicide defendant absent a jury finding the defendant is “irreparably corrupt.” The Miller opinion does not bar a penalty for a class of offenders or type of crime, it only mandates a certain process—that the sentencer consider an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing an LWOP sentence. The Miller case drew a line between juvenile defendants whose crimes were the product of transient immaturity and those rare minors whose offenses reflect irreparable corruption. However, Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement. “‘Irreparable corruption’ is not a factual finding, but merely ‘encapsulates the [absence] of youth-based mitigation.'” This finding need not be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt because it is not being used to “aggravate” or “enhance” the sentence.

The Eighth Amendment does not categorically prohibit LWOP for juvenile offenders who do not kill or intend to kill. Blackwell claimed the Eighth Amendment prohibits an LWOP sentence for a juvenile defendant unless he personally killed or intended to kill, and that in his case the jury did not make these findings. In Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48, the Court determined the Eighth Amendment provides a categorical limit on punishment for juveniles who commit a nonhomicide offense. It found the practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to LWOP unjustifiable under penological theory and unconstitutional in nonhomicide cases. But the Graham holding has not been extended to a juvenile offender who is convicted of homicide but who did not personally kill or intend to kill and the Court of Appeal declined to read Graham so expansively.

In imposing a sentence, the trial court is not prohibited from making factual findings that are inconsistent with the jury’s verdict of acquittal on other counts. Blackwell argued the jury’s not true finding on the gun use enhancement reflected he was convicted as an aider and abettor. Therefore, he claimed, the court improperly elevated his sentence to LWOP based on its finding he was the killer. However, the jury’s not true finding on the gun use allegation did not constitute an affirmative finding that Blackwell was only an aider and abettor. Facts considered by the court in selecting the appropriate sentence need only be found by a preponderance of the evidence. Therefore, the trial court may take into account its own factual findings with regard to the defendant’s conduct related to an offense of which the defendant was acquitted, without implicating the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion when it sentenced juvenile offender to LWOP. A trial court’s exercise of its sentencing discretion will not be disturbed on appeal absent a showing the court acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner, resulting in a miscarriage of justice. Blackwell maintained the court placed too much emphasis on the circumstances of the offense and gave too little weight to the immaturity of the offender. The Court of Appeal declined Blackwell’s request to find that Miller creates a presumption of immaturity, rendering 25 years-to-life the presumptive sentence. So long as a sentencing court considers the Miller factors, it may give such weight to the relevant facts as it deems reasonably appropriate under the circumstances. In resentencing Blackwell, the trial court explicitly considered the Miller factors with no presumption in favor of LWOP. In selecting LWOP based on Blackwell’s circumstances and the heinous nature of the offense, the court did not abuse its discretion.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: