Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 193 L. Ed. 2d 599, 622 (2016), which made the holding of Miller v. Alabama, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407, 424 (2012), retroactive. Miller, of course, held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile defendants violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, Miller also laid the groundwork for the Court’s determination in Montgomery that a discretionary life without parole sentence also violates the Eighth Amendment “for a child whose crime reflects ‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity.’” Montgomery, 193 L. Ed. 2d at 619 (quoting Miller, 567 U.S. at ___, 183 L. Ed. 2d at 424).
The decisions in Miller and Montgomery have already affected North Carolina and will continue to influence juvenile delinquency and criminal cases in this state for years to come. Soon after the decision in Miller was issued, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted a statutory scheme for sentencing juvenile defendants convicted of first-degree murder. Under the new statutory scheme, trial judges retain the ability to impose discretionary life without parole sentences for those defendants. North Carolina is also one of only two states in which 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes are prosecuted in adult criminal court. Under a separate law, cases in which a juvenile court judge finds probable cause to believe that a 13-, 14-, and 15-year-old committed first-degree murder are also automatically transferred to adult criminal court. In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling that Miller is retroactive, as well as unique aspects of North Carolina law that funnel juveniles to superior court, there will be many cases across the state that will result in sentencing hearings to determine whether defendants who were juveniles at the time of a murder should receive sentences of life in prison with or without parole.
To help attorneys prepare for these hearings, a working group of attorneys from the Office of the Juvenile Defender, the Office of the Capital Defender, the Office of the Appellate Defender, and North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services has developed a handout entitled, “Strategies for Litigating Miller Cases.” The handout provides advice for obtaining mitigating evidence, a description of the research that influenced Miller and Montgomery, a discussion of constitutional arguments against life without parole sentences, and much more. The handout also provides hyperlinks to sample motions and other resources that will aid attorneys as they defend their clients in these cases.
If you are retained or appointed to handle a retroactive sentencing hearing or a case involving a new first-degree murder charge against a juvenile client, please be sure to review the handout, which is available on the Appellate Defender website. In addition, if you are interested in joining a listserv about Miller issues, please send an email to David Andrews, Assistant Appellate Defender, at David.W.Andrews@nccourts.org. The listserv will enable attorneys in the working group to post new appellate court decisions on Miller issues and provide a forum for questions on Miller cases. Finally, please stay tuned for announcements on training events for Miller cases. Over the next several months, the working group will develop presentations on Miller issues and will work to share those presentations to attorneys across the state.
David Andrews is an Assistant Appellate Defender in the North Carolina Office of the Appellate Defender (OAD), a division of the Office of Indigent Defense Services. OAD staff attorneys represent indigent clients in criminal, juvenile delinquency, and involuntary commitment appeals to the Court of Appeals of North Carolina and the Supreme Court of North Carolina.