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U.S. Supreme Court cases on juvenile life-without-parole don’t provide basis for habeas relief for discretionary, non-life sentence

Rico Sanders v. Scott Eckstein, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals No. 19-2596 (Nov. 30, 2020)

Sanders was give a 140-year sentence for sexual assaults he committed when he was 15 years old. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2030, when he’s 51. He argues he’s entitled to habeas relief because the Wisconsin Court of Appeals unreasonably rejected his claim that his sentence violates the Eighth Amendment under recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions dealing with life sentences for juveniles. The Seventh Circuit rejects his claim.

Sanders’s Eighth Amendment claim rests on Graham v. Florida, 560  U.S. 48, 75 (2010), which holds that juveniles sentenced for non-homicide crimes have “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” and Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 480 (2012), which struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles and mandated that sentencing courts “take into account how children are different [from adults], and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” The more recent case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), continues to underscore that life sentences should be imposed on juveniles “sparingly”; and Seventh Circuit precedent recognizes that the Supreme Court’s reasoning regarding mandatory life sentences without parole applies with equal force to a term of years  long enough to qualify as a de facto life sentence. McKinley v. Butler, 809 F.3d 908 (7th Cir. 2016).

That’s all well and good. But it doesn’t entitle Sanders to habeas relief, which is proper only if the state court decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)–(2). Sanders can’t meet either standard.

First, as to his Graham claim, the state court found that his life expectancy was 63.2 years, so parole eligibility at age 51 gave him a meaningful opportunity of release.  Sanders argues his life expectancy is only 50.6 years, but he waived this argument by not presenting it to the Wisconsin courts:

The only information Sanders [acting pro se, it should be observed] presented in state court about his life expectancy came in his reply brief in support of his petition for post‐conviction relief, where he asserted that his life expectancy is 63.2 years—a figure he said came from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The state court reasonably accepted this assertion. Sanders cannot base a request for federal habeas relief on information not presented to the state court in the first instance.

(Slip op. at 9).

He fares no better with his Miller claim. Miller held it is unconstitutional to subject a juvenile offender convicted of homicide to a mandatory sentence of life-without-parole. 567 U.S. at 479. Sanders didn’t commit a homicide, nor did he receive a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. Rather, “[h]e was convicted of nonhomicide offenses, his 140‐year sentence was discretionary rather than mandatory, and his sentence provides for the possibility of parole.” (Slip op. at 10-11). Nor does McKinley help Sanders, for the defendant in that case was given a sentence that provided no possibility for parole and was therefore effectively a life sentence, whilst Sanders is eligible for parole at age 51 and expected to live into his 60s. “Absent controlling Supreme Court authority that Miller requires a sentencing judge to consider a juvenile offender’s youth and its attendant circumstances before imposing a sentence other than a de jure or de facto life‐without‐parole sentence, we cannot say that the Wisconsin court’s decision resulted in an unreasonable application of federal law.” (Slip op. at 11).

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